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I'm back on Livejournal because I'm bored with Facebook

Jun. 18th, 2014 | 05:41 pm

Hello, I'm back on Livejournak for a while because I'm bored with Facebook. 

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Why the recent 'Les Miserables' movie is a good adaptation

Dec. 28th, 2012 | 06:06 pm

les-miserables-2012 les-miserables-musical-poster les-miserables-book-mine

Left: The recent movie poster. Centre: The iconic poster image for the musical. Right: The cover of the edition of the novel that I own.

Les Miserables (2012) was really, really good, but you really need to have a stomach for melodrama or must have liked the book or the musical.

I ended up getting on fangirl arguments on Facebook, something I always thought was pretty pathetic and annoying -- but! yes! it! bugs! me! People who complain that the recent Les Miserables film was excessively sentimental and overwrought are like people who pick up Assassin's Creed video games and complain that it is full of excessive violence.

What makes a good adaptation?

I believe that an adaptation should interpret the source material and make it suit the demands of the different medium, while still remaining recognizable as the work that it was meant to be. The 'essence' of the original source material needs to be felt, even as scenes are cut and lines are changed. Sometimes, you do get directors who have a strong personal take on an adaptation and direct the story into a completely different way than intended from the source material: Stanley Kubrick is the most highly regarded for doing this. But you only ever hear of those who have done so successfully because most people who do attempt this and are short of 'incredible', 'amazing' or 'genius' are forgotten. Their works are recognized as they are: as bad adaptations.

There was someone on FB who said that the recent film didn't work as film, and that he would like a more 'slick and efficient' Les Miserables. It just so happens that the 1998 film adaptation of the book, with some parts posted on Youtube, is precisely that. I took one glance at the final scene of the 1998 film on Youtube and disliked it immediately. It is exactly as I would expect from anyone who made a 'slick and efficient' Les Miserables: it focuses entirely on the cat-and-mouse chase between Jean Valjean and Javert.

Victor Hugo was not just writing a thriller-drama that spanned several decades using two characters. He was writing a political tract and wanted to achieve that by pulling the heartstrings of the reader. It is unabashed 'art with a message'. It was shamelessly ambitious. It would be a historical document, a religious exploration on the virtues of justice versus forgiveness, and a lecture on the need for social and political reform for the benefit of the underprivileged. It is not entitled 'Jean Valjean'. It is entitled 'The Wretched'. So ambitious was he that Victor Hugo claimed that the novel was written 'for all' -- but it was certainly not for his critics and those who wanted more sophisticated literature; when it was first published, it was criticized for being sentimental and excessive even as the public lapped up volume after volume.

Such an ambitious, shameless, excessive exercise of the sentiments deserves a medium that is capable of conveying the extent of its ambition, shamelessness, excess and sentimentalism. It deserves -- a musical.

A musical should express and condense the emotions, thoughts and conflicts of the characters in song. In a musical, complex debates and conflicts can be made palatable and digestible through song and dance. Theological problems and personal epiphanies are all expressed in sing-along tunes. Just imagine if we could have "The American Gun Control Debate: The Musical". Everything in life would be better!

The problem that I have recognized, at least by listening to renditions of the musical numbers on Youtube, is that it is possible to sing the songs in Les Miserables without recognizing the emotional complexity of the character singing it; the songs are sung as songs, rather than as expressions of the character condensed in a few lines. The recent film adaptation does not make this mistake and instead charges every single song with all the emotional intensity the characters express in the novels, but condensed into spans of one to four minutes. The result is an excessive and relentless bawfest, with most of the actors crying through their songs and the audience brought to observe this intense emotional display on close-up, again and again and again.

It's hard for someone to wade through if they are unprepared for it or unaware of how sentimental and overwrought the source materials are, but in terms of capturing the essence of what Les Miserables is, the recent film succeeds extremely well. Is an adaptation really at fault if it is able to delight an audience for the same reason as its source material does, and frustrate the audience for the same reasons too? The only thing the film did not have is the extensive historical detail (and socio-political lecturing), but no one has been able to include that in any adaptation anyway.

Unlike some who feel that the film does not succeed as a film because it did not recognize the challenges and art of its medium, I felt that the film is a success because it captured the best (and the worst) of its source material and convey it in the very language of film. There are some who believe that this film is an Oscar contender for this. Knowing the Oscars, I think it is unlikely -- they don't like musicals -- but in terms of making the transition from book, to stage, then to film, I think it has done so extremely well. This may not be a film for all, but it is a landmark Les Miserables performance.

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Melbourne Full Report Part One: The People and the Place

Oct. 18th, 2012 | 10:07 pm

Coming from a city where pollution is high, crime is rising, politics is very dirty, and where many people with enough money and qualifications are making the decision to emigrate in fear of political or economic instability, Melbourne looks like paradise.

Melbourne is actually very small. You can easily walk from one end of the central business district to the other. The vast majority of Melbourne residents live in the suburbs, which doesn't look anything like Kuala Lumpur suburbs: there are no neighbourhood malls or showy condominiums, and it is scenery after scenery of one or two-storey buildings after another. For a Kuala Lumpur resident used to national debt-inducing mega structures, the suburbs look almost underdeveloped: not all the freeways have lights, and many of them have only two lanes.

Left: A portion of Bourke Street has been converted entirely into a pedestrian-only zone. Right: Transportation in Nicholson Street.

Melbourne city is linked by a tram network that was established in the 1800s. The existence of this tram network means that many residents of Melbourne are used to relying entirely on public transportation. The majority of Melbourne residents seem to travel on foot. They come into the central business district by around seven to eight in the morning. At around five in the evening, droves of them can be seen walking towards the main train station, Flinders Street Station. By seven at night the city centre is almost entirely dead, with the exception of a few cafes, bars and restaurants that open late.

Left: Old buildings are maintained, at least in terms of their external appearance. Right: St. Paul's Cathedral, an Anglican church located near Federation Square. It was built in the 1800s.

Melbourne does a good job of maintaining the facade of its old buildings. You will find many old buildings in Melbourne serving as homes to banks, offices, shops. There are also many churches in Melbourne, although I suspect that apart from the ethnic Greek population and the migrant Evangelical Asians, there aren't many devotees. I could be mistaken though. I didn't get to go to church in Melbourne.

The people are very polite. Melbourne residents speak in a very slow, mellow and polite manner, more commonly associated with the nature of small towns than of big cities. I felt very rude in Melbourne. Perhaps Kuala Lumpur in general is rather rude.

Left: A poster for a political campaign features a white man for Mayor and an East Asian man for Deputy. Right: One of the many Malaysian companies operating or planning to operate in Melbourne. Other Malaysian companies I've spotted include Papa Rotti and SP Setia.

This pleasant environment has brought in a wave of migrants to Melbourne, many of them from Asia. The city is almost 30 - 40% Asian. Melbourne Airport uses two languages: English and Mandarin. Many Melbourne whites can eat Asian food with little problem, and some can speak Mandarin. Although the countryside is still mostly white, the city itself is a strong Asian-Western mix.

It's not like the Asians are all working in low-class jobs either, doing dirty work that the locals won't do (the way it is in Kuala Lumpur, and how some Malaysians treat Indonesians or Myanmarese, letting them do all the dirty work for slave wages). In fact, there's very little class division in Melbourne. Serving in restaurants, cleaning tables, or working in hotels aren't 'lowly' jobs. Without this stigma there is less class conflict. There does seem to be a stronger likelihood of Asians working in shops and convenience stores, but when it comes to jobs like cleaning tables or collecting garbage, Australian whites don't seem to have an issue with doing 'dirty work' that cripple the employment choices of middle-class Malaysians.

Exhibition of aborigine peoples, part of the Melbourne Museum's displays. Their aborigine section was closed for maintenance when I visited it.

The name 'Melbourne' is not entirely divorced from terrible things. Australia has a terrible relationship with its aboriginal population -- the entire country is the creation of colonization. And unlike Malaysia, the colonizers were hostile, violent, and never left. To this day, there are a number of Australian aborigines who still regard the arrival of the white Europeans as that of foreign conquerors dispossessing them of their land: they call their version of national day, Australia Day, as Invasion Day -- the day they lost their land.

As someone of indigenous heritage, the plight of the aborigines moved me greatly. It was only a matter of luck and fortune that the colonizer of Sarawak, James Brooke, had some eccentric ideas of his own and declared himself a king of a new country with himself as a benevolent father figure over the population. This move protected Sarawak from intrusion of other colonial parties who wanted to exploit the native population there.

It also made me appreciate the fact that Malaysia has achieved Independence. It is not a perfect creation, and I can now understand why some Malaysians look to the Indonesians with high regard, as a country that fought for (and earned) its liberty by taking the Dutch colonizers to war, whereas Malaysia was granted its liberty simply because the British felt that they couldn't run so many colonies anymore. Our declaration of Independence was a very polite affair.

There is an area in Melbourne that reflects this conflict that Australia has with its aboriginal population: it recognizes that its past was established by dispossessing a people of their land and wants to make amends, but is afraid that making amends will relinquish their claim of ownership. In Victoria Market there is a plot of land that is not developed. Two aborigine warriors were executed and the place serves as their burial ground. A quick Internet search tells me that they were charged for murder of two whalers who had trespassed their land. This is the Australian version of our Rentaps, our Mat Sallehs and Mat Kilau. I feel that there should be statues or memorials built there, honouring their resistance. Instead the place is a carpark: an awkward zone that does not wish to offend sensibilities, but neither restores dignity to the wronged.

I really don't look good in this picture. Graffiti along Union Lane.

Melbourne is highly praised as an 'artistic city', with a large population of visual artists, musicians, and a number of writers. I haven't really delved into this scene, since I spent most of the time with my family. I managed to get some leads, though.

There was a very nice bookstore that I would highly recommend to other reading travellers called The Paperback Books. The lady whom I spoke to was the only person whom I bothered asking for recommendations of Australian writers, and she did not disappoint me with her recommendations. The shop was the only one that carried postcards with illustrations from Australian artists, the only one who seemed to be knowledgeable of Tan Twan Eng, and the only one who was distributing an Australian free art zine that I took home.

The Paperback Books is located to a very old Italian coffee and pasta place called Pellegrini's. It is a family business, one of the oldest in Melbourne, and probably the oldest coffee place there. Both The Paperback Books and Pellegrini's are located on Bourke Street.

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The Hunger Games movie

Mar. 24th, 2012 | 11:24 pm

TLDR: Although fans of The Hunger Games generally do not like the comparisons to Battle Royale, the comparison is apt.

I was prepared to not like The Hunger Games. When my students said that they really liked the book and when many adults said that The Hunger Games was good, I wasn't sure if I would like it. It made me think of me liking Harry Potter. I do like the Harry Potter series even if I don't consider myself a fan, but the only reason why I liked it is because I read the first book when I was eighteen years old. If I were to read any of the Harry Potter books as I am now, I wouldn't have enjoyed them, and if I could not enjoy the books I wouldn't have been able to enjoy the movies.

I went to watch the movie today and I'm happy to say that I liked it.

I've read the first few chapters of the first book. It was as I expected: it wasn't something I could really get into, but it wasn't bad. I got the impression then that The Hunger Games was Battle Royale for teenagers. Having watched the film, my impression of it remains. Although fans of The Hunger Games will say that the film shouldn't be compared to Battle Royale, the comparison is apt. While it's true that Battle Royale is a gore-fest and The Hunger Games is made to parallel Roman gladiator games, the message conveyed to the audience is about the same.

Like Battle Royale, The Hunger Games shares a similar premise: a group of teenagers are released into the wilderness as part of a game. There is only one way to win the game: be the last one alive. Like Battle Royale, The Hunger Games also functions as social allegory. Whereas Battle Royale was a comment on the viciousness of social mores that Japanese teenagers were subjecting themselves to ("it's a dog-eat-dog world, cram or die, top or nothing, etc.") in order to survive in their community, The Hunger Games could be seen as allegory for Western, in particular North American, concerns and fears about economic inequality: the rich control the supply of the community's food and resources, and the poor are controlled by the rich through social mechanisms -- such as the annual Hunger Games, where they literally fight to the death over what little resources can be bestowed unto them (the district of the Hunger Games' champion wins a year's supply of food).

Like Battle Royale, The Hunger Games has the same moral problem: while it condemns the violence that the teenagers are subject to, it also places the audience (or reader) in a situation where we become spectators of their gladiator tournament. As such, while we are required to condemn the violence, we are also invited to revel in it. It was hard to say that Battle Royale invited the audience to condemn the brutality that the teenagers were subject to when the film's most exciting moments seem to come from its most violent; and while The Hunger Games is less violent, the most energetic moments still came from the times when the teenagers were pitted against each other and forced to fight to the death.

Nevertheless, The Hunger Games does succeed in driving home a more humane message than Battle Royale. Whereas Battle Royale drives home the message that the world is essentially an evil place with little redeeming value, The Hunger Games makes it a clear point that survival is not dependent on being strong, but in being loved.

Katniss Everdeen, the heroine of The Hunger Games, is a strong young woman: she is athletic, tall, and very determined. She has a commanding presence. But it becomes very clear from early in the games that Katniss's survival is not dependent on her personal strengths but the goodwill she receives from others. Most of this goodwill seems to be completely randomly given. We're not told why certain characters grant her favour or not, they just do. Sometimes it is due to cunning and planning, such as when she receives sponsors. Sometimes it is due to appeal to self-interest, such as when the game organizers try to keep her alive in order to placate a potential uprising. And sometimes it just happens.

If I were to compare The Hunger Games to Battle Royale as an eighteen-year old, I'd say that Battle Royale was a lot like what the 'real world' was: that it is an evil place where only the strong survive. But as a 29-year old I'd say that 'the real world' is a lot more like The Hunger Games: it's true that it's a tough world where we have to scour and be strong to survive, but the reasons we do get ahead is often rarely due to our personal strengths. Rather, if we were truly honest with ourselves, we get by because of the often random and unpredictable moments when we receive goodwill from others.

There's a moment in The Hunger Games when Katniss meets a survivor of the games (a bearded, shaggy adult who has degenerated into alcoholism) from her district. Impatient with his cynicism and alcoholism, she demands to know how to stay alive in the game and demonstrates this by driving a knife into the table, narrowly missing his hand. Irritated, he then tells her that she has gotten it wrong: the secret to stay alive in the games is to be liked.

How true. Whatever its strengths and weaknesses are compared to other similar works of fiction competing for our attention, I liked The Hunger Games.

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hitler stuff

Jan. 18th, 2012 | 12:53 am

I bought a copy of Mein Kampf. Never wanted to buy it before, it's like buying something called "Diary of a Serial Killer" or something. (And now, you too, can be privy to the Voice of Evil! At 20% discount if you purchase another book from us!). 

But I'm teaching The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas in school, and the more I read about the Holocaust the more curious I was about the whys it happened. Then I saw Mein Kampf on sale for like, RM 40 (USD 10). 

Ho crap, leafed through like a few pages of it and was scared to think of how Hitler's ideas took such easy rooting. I mean, it's not like he's writing a blog or something. He had a very clear intended audience in mind. He was addressing them in terms that both of them mutually agreed upon. We all know: Nazism took root in fertile ground, ordinary Germans were not all innocent. But leafing through Mein Kampf is gives you a different level of intimacy with that concept. You suddenly realize how that ground can be fertile...because you live a bit of it yourself. 

The scariest thing is thinking about how that same 'fertile ground' exists in so many places still, in so many parts of human interaction and culture. 

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Jan. 4th, 2012 | 08:59 pm


I knew I shouldn't have looked on the Internet.

I saw screencaps from the recent Sherlock episode!! A SCREENCAP WITH THE HAT! Used for an LJ icon!

Going to unsubscribe from holmesian_news IMMEDIATELY.

Darn it, it wasn't holmesian_news, it was another community! How many of these communities do I have anyway????

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Jan. 1st, 2012 | 12:10 am


I love you all my dashboard confessional people

I spent the turn of midnight buying a cup of tea

Looks like digi's 3G network collapsed a little at the point of midnight. Yay for Starbucks wireless

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Sherlock Holmes

Dec. 29th, 2011 | 09:29 am

On a less angsty note, I saw the new Sherlock Holmes movie.

You know, it really felt like this crew saw the BBC version with Cumberbatch as Holmes and simply gave up. A pity, I did like the Ritchie movie-verse of Holmes.

In the first movie, Downey Jr's Holmes felt like a believable take on the character, if you give room to some exaggeration on some of Holmes's traits. I accept the need for more action and more highlights on the man's eccentricity. But in this movie, he's barely recognizable as Holmes. Holmes is mad, but not that mad: in the first movie this is shown through him trapping flies in a jar (exaggerated but believable), in the second we have it hit over our heads with -- Watson literally calls him 'manic' while Holmes looks on with 'crazy eyes' in a room filled with tropical plants. Again, I suspect that they were going for Holmes as that bohemian Byronic figure in the first movie, only to see that Benedict Cumberbatch did a better job at it and weren't sure of what to do for the second. The result is a parody of an actor taking on the 'Byronic Holmes' role, all jumpy and nervy and not in the least bit resembling Holmes.

When Holmes isn't recognizable, the movie drops, but other things can still keep it afloat. Jude Law's Watson, in the first movie, is considered by many to be among the best Watsons we've had. Sadly his talents were mostly wasted. The only time I could feel 'that's Watson!' was in the beginning, as he walks through Baker Street for a grand total of a few seconds. Most of the time, Watson could have been any other buddy, but it probably doesn't matter now that Holmes could have been any other stock 'neurotic genius'.

The movie's fans on Rottentomatoes defend the film by saying that critics forget that Arthur Conan Doyle was really writing pulp fiction. In some ways this isn't entirely unwarranted; Roger Ebert claims to have read the books but forgotten that Holmes did cocaine, not opium, so you do wonder whether the critics were thinking of previous screen adaptations instead of the books. (I've always suspected that Holmes taking cocaine was a way of making him appear 'cool', like an arty person smoking marijuana, whereas if Conan Doyle showed him taking opium it would have been like a hero taking hard drugs.)

But there's pulp fiction, and there's ridiculousness. I'm disappointed at the lack of restraint here and the lack of dignity. You can make pulp fiction that is still -- well, respectable, for the lack of a better word. Guy Ritchie is able to do this; I wonder if the silliness in this movie is the studio's pressure for bigger means better, or Ritchie's own loss of creative direction.

In the last movie we had big action scenes, but they still felt comfortably Holmesian as long as you're willing to give Hollywood some leeway and accept that we need big action sequences. The ship action sequence is an example of that: it's a big action scene, involving a giant and a ship falling into the sea, but it still felt like something that could be in the Holmes canon, not in the grandiosity of the action but in the level of excitement it stirred. In this movie Holmes and Watson are running through some frozen woods while men who look strangely like Nazi soldiers fire at them with retro-futuristic bombs resulting in tree-splitting explosions. I almost expected seeing something with a mushroom cloud. It wouldn't be out of place in this Holmesian world.

Also, I'm disappointed that they had to make cheap gags at Sherlock's and Mycroft's expense.

To be honest, as a whole, I don't think it's the worst of Holmes pastiches. Fans of Sherlock Holmes had to endure Stupid Watson and all sorts of bizarre adventures in previous screen adaptations of our favourite duo. But it's far from a good one, and with the second season of BBC's Sherlock coming very, very soon, I'm afraid this movie isn't going to be remembered well.

By the way, the action scenes (particularly Moriarty and Holmes's) were quite well done. Guy Ritchie is an action film director, and if everything else flops in the movie, the action sequences nevertheless are great eye candy.

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Signal boost: Malaysian transgendered woman needs your help

Dec. 3rd, 2011 | 09:39 pm

Signal boost: Malaysian transgendered woman needs help.

I am acquainted with a transgendered woman in Malaysia who is currently in desperate need of some assistance now. Her name is Yuki Choe, and she is a writer and activist for transgendered causes.

She is currently out of work and living every day dollar-to-dollar. As a transgendered woman, it's very difficult for her to find work in Malaysia. She's currently applying for jobs but right now, she needs money to help support her day-to-day until she finds work. She needs money for food, transportation costs, and to help her get medication. She can't turn to her family.

I know that she is legit; she's been active in transgendered activism for a long time. You can visit her blog here. I also know for a fact that it is very difficult for transgendered Malaysian citizens to get well-paying jobs. This is why there are so many transgendered people involved in sex work. Yuki has no intention of becoming a sex worker and one of her concerns is that there needs to be more discourse in Malaysia concerning the rights of transgendered individuals who are not or who do not want to be sex workers.

How you can help:

1. If you do have some cash to spare, please consider donating some to her via Paypal -- the exchange rate for USD 1 = RM 4, so a little bit will go a long way. Her Paypal address is yuki.choe@yahoo.com.

2. If you are able to connect her to work of some sort that can be done virtually, that'll be really great. Yuki has some experience in writing and event management.

3. Signal boost this -- please let your friends know about Yuki. If you're not able to help her out financially, getting other people to know about this will do a lot of good.

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Reading Thomas Traherne on the eve of my 29th birthday

Dec. 2nd, 2011 | 04:58 pm

Today is my birthday. Yesterday I discovered a new poet whom I think I will enjoy reading very much, Thomas Traherne. To celebrate my birthday and my discovery of his works, I will post 'The Salutation', his first poem that I read and which, coincidentally, is about birth.

The Salutation

These little limbs,
These eyes and hands which here I find,
These rosy cheeks wherewith my life begins,
Where have ye been? behind
What curtain were ye from me hid so long?
Where was, in what abyss, my speaking tongue?

When silent I
So many thousand, thousand years
Beneath the dust did in a chaos lie,
How could I smiles or tears,
Or lips or hands or eyes or ears perceive?
Welcome ye treasures which I now receive.

I that so long
Was nothing from eternity,
Did little think such joys as ear or tongue
To celebrate or see:
Such sounds to hear, such hands to feel, such feet,
Beneath the skies on such a ground to meet.

New burnished joys,
Which yellow gold and pearls excel!
Such sacred treasures are the limbs in boys,
In which a soul doth dwell;
Their organizèd joints and azure veins
More wealth include than all the world contains.

From dust I rise,
And out of nothing now awake;
These brighter regions which salute mine eyes,
A gift from God I take.
The earth, the seas, the light, the day, the skies,
The sun and stars are mine if those I prize.

Long time before
I in my mother’s womb was born,
A God, preparing, did this glorious store,
The world, for me adorn.
Into this Eden so divine and fair,
So wide and bright, I come His son and heir.

A stranger here
Strange things doth meet, strange glories see;
Strange treasures lodged in this fair world appear,
Strange all and new to me;
But that they mine should be, who nothing was,
That strangest is of all, yet brought to pass.

I don't think the formatting will come out right, but I don't know the right codes for disabling HTML. If you want to read it in its actual format, check out this page here.

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