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2012年3月31日 星期六

The Mill and the Cross (磨坊與十字架)

Can a painting become the subject of a film? Can screen images be like paintings? In the film The Mill and the Cross, we see how various details of a painting, "The Way to Calvary" (1564) by the famous 16th century Dutch painter Peter Breugel the Elder (Rutger Hauer) came to be painted. We learn about it through the dialogue between Breugel and his patron (Michael York) about how the artist wishes to capture a "panoramic" view of life in a small  village at the foot of a limestone hill in 16th century Flanders and thereby to render it "eternal" by freezing it in the form of his painting and how in that painting, he wishes to include "everything"! .

There are more than  a hundred characters in the painting, of different ages, sex, occupation and engaged in various kind of everyday activity. Towering above them all is a huge wind mill atop a craggy limestone hill, turning its creaky but massive wheels around against a cloudy sky, and as it does so, grinding flour for the bread of life but otherwise indifferent to the fate of the various villagers below, subjected to all kinds of random violence visited upon them and dumbly accepted by them as part of great Plan of God, with endurance but without comprehension either by Nature or by the mercenary Spanish soldiers hired by its conquerors, the Emperor of Spain. God is everywhere. There is constant flogging of the villagers, dressed up against their will as Christ figures, being crucified, to "edify" them for the sake of their immortal souls, being tied to a cart wheel and placed on top of a pole to be pecked at by carrions. Below them one always finds a Mary figure (Charlotte Rampling), the Mother of Sorrow, mourning the death of lost souls at the foot of the crucifixes. She confesses to his son that she does not know why there should be so much suffering and questions whether there is any purpose to it. Whatever the answer to her questions may be, we see "heretics" buried alive. In the mean time, life goes on, the poor peasants making love, making babies, eking out a bare existence with little in the way of material comforts, taking time off whenever they can to relieve the hardships and monotony of their short and brutish life to enjoy a little, by dancing to the tune of a medieval horn.The happiest amongst them are the little children, who do not yet know anything about life's miseries and life's incessant toil. They would eat their daily bread after which they would  run around, play fighting with each other, jumping up and down on one of their brothers covered under a blanket on a bed. People live with their sheep, their geese, their cow under the same roof. From what we see, their lives look not that much different from those of their animals.

Breugel explains to his patron how in his painting, he has a focus, a Christ-figure and his death which remains but a tiny detail, one amongst many, practically drowned by a sea of other details, how there is light on the left, darkness to the right, what symbolize life and what death and how he intends to capture a slice of life and how to immortalize it through his painting, and how in his painting, the miller has replaced God, how the turning of his mill has replaced the turning of man's destiny under the former predestined God-given Fate of man and how his painting is a web of life, like the web of the spider that he sees upon waking up one morning in the fields when he was overcome with tiredness whilst trying to compose a sketch of his famous painting.

The film, directed by Polish director Lech Majewski, looks to me like a series of paintings, with some of its characters suddenly coming alive and us following brief snippets of their life. He has obviously taken meticulous care on how  to compose his screen images, so that even the natural scenery which one sees on the outside of windows of his characters is also "framed" as if it were another painting. The boundary between life and its representation, between reality and art, between fact and fiction, between static painted images and moving film images is imperceptibly transcended. The painting has become "alive" ! Without a doubt, it must be "the" most  beautiful film I have seen at the HKIFF this year.
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Nuit Blanche ( Sleepless Night) (白夜巴黎)

I've been posting jokes here  on Saturdays for quite some time. This Saturday won't be an exception. But this week, I'll  do something different. I shall write a film review. It's about  a late night film I saw at the city hall. It's the craziest action film I have seen for a long long time. What's it called? "Nuit Blanche". In English it's "Sleepless Night". The programme booklet says: "the aptly named Sleepless Night will set your heart pulsing all night long with its breathless tension."


The film is about how a corrupt cop busted a drug deal. But there's more, there are in fact two gangs, and two teams of policemen. There are double crosses, triple crosses. It's difficult to tell who is a cop and who a gangster. In any event, we see how the cops and the gangsters fight over 10 kilos of heroin and in the process kidnaps a cop's son to ensure that the cop will deliver the heroin. I do not know what the director intends to do in this film. But to me, it really looks remarkably like a "spoof" upon the "genre" of police/gangster film.

From the word go, we see action, action and more action: people rushing about, driving about in screeching cars, people pushing, shoving other people around  or away in a crowded Paris night club, dishes, plates, pots and pans flying about, plenty of shattered glasses, flickering lights which turn on and off disco-fashion and one fist fight every quarter of an hour or so, and of course, countless gun shots. There is hardly a static shot. The screen images keep changing once every two or three seconds from start to finish. I do not know how the the Film Censor classifies this film. It should merit a Category III because of the continuous display of violence, and preferably with a health warning. "Watching this film may be a health hazard. Not to be watched unless you're properly equipped with ear muffs and dark glasses"! "Breathless tension" indeed! The film perpetrates a non stop assault upon your eyes and your ears. I never saw a film whose scenes change so rapidly and whose sound tracks are so loud. We may like action in a film from time to time. If there can be something called "over-doing" an action film, then I cannot think of a film which better fits this description. It's not often that I look forward to the ending of a film. For this film, I was dying for the arrival of "screen credits" time. Not that it's not an "exciting" film. Perhaps, it is too "exciting". If it were to continue any longer, I'd have serious doubt about my sanity. It must be a joke upon the film buff ! And not a good one either!


2012年3月29日 星期四

Martha Marcy May Marlene 瑪蓮邪教離魂曲)

My sixth film at the HKIFF is a slow-burn psychological drama about how a young girl who had been brainwashed by a charming, charismatic but subtly manipulative leader lording over, in the name of brotherly, sisterly and fatherly love and sharing, an extremely small cult of idealistic, well-meaning but immature and credulous teenagers and young adults, mostly females, who are in one way or another disillusioned by the values of the ceaseless pursuit for money, status and egotism in mainstream America, readjusting after two or more years there to "normal" life in a lakeside Connecticut holiday home owned by her sister and only surviving relative in this world and her stereo-type yuppie husband.

The film Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011) winner of the best director award at the Sundance Film Festival, is the debut feature film of a talented young American director Sean Durkin, who wrote the screenplay himself. The drama is played out by 4 principal actors, Martha (Elizabeth Olsen ), her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson), her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy) and the cult leader Patrick (John Hawkes).

As the film opens, we see a girl running away into the woods,hiding in a hollow from the pursuing inmates of a broken down farm house equipped with just the bare essentials for survival. She calls Lucy, her estranged, guilt ridden and solicitous middle class sister and her sole surviving relative, from a payphone in a road side cafe and greyhound bus station. She looks scared and confused and is in obvious distress. Her sister asks her to wait for her, picks her up in her car and takes her into her beautiful rented lakeside vacation home in Connecticut where she was spending her annual 2 weeks holiday with her husband Ted, pending the completion of their official home closer to New York  City. Martha obviously does not behave in a "socially acceptable" manner. e.g. she would think nothing of swimming naked in the lake in full view of the neighbors and would sneak into her sister's bedroom to lay beside her in her bed whilst her sister is making love with her husband and after having stayed a while in her sister's house when it was suggested to her that it was about time she thought about what she would like to do with her life like finding a job, she protested that it was not necessary and that Ted's life about measuring success by money and possession was simply "not right".

Whilst still recovering from her recent trauma, she freaked out during a party thrown by her sister at the house when she met a man serving drinks who looked like Patrick, the cult leader who welcomed her into the cult, "initiated" her into it by "doing" her from behind after she is "prepared" by putting on a special ritual white dress and drinking a herbal tea, watched his group having communal sex from a step in the staircase, strummed on the guitar a song specially dedicated to Marcy May, a name he gave her to symbolize the acquisition of her new identity (Martha Marlene on the outside but Marcy May inside) said she was "special" because she was "a teacher and a leader" an ideal which her sister had pushed her to achieve in her own way but failed to, taught her how to do farm work and shoot with a pistol and who decreed that the women should eat only after the men have finished in their little "commune" and who periodically caused some of his cult members to burgle into the houses of wealthy house owners nearby and steal whatever they needed and on one occasion even killed its innocent owner for fear of his reporting them to the police. It was probably a combination of the violence that she witnessed coupled with her role in "initiating" another new teenage girl into the cult and her feeling that she had somehow been "betrayed" that finally caused her to run away.

Until the end of the film, when we see Martha being driven in Lucy's car by the latter to seek outside help after a violent episode in which she yanked Ted down a flight of steps when she was in one of her "states", she never spilled a single word about what happened to her during those half sweet and half traumatized years in that barn-like small "self-sufficient" alternative commune. What would happen to her? It's anyone's guess. Whatever the outcome may be, it's certain that Durkin seems to want us to think a little about two kinds of very contrasting social values and the respective strengths and weaknesses of each. But I don't this aspect is much developed or very much emphasized. He seems quite happy to "just  present" what happened.

The film was done in a very natural, low keyed way as we see Martha gliding between the present and her recent past, between reality and her occasional flash back to her life at that Manson-like cult. I like the way in which Durkin slowly unravels piece by piece the puzzle of  what happened before Martha finally decided to escape from that isolated and closed community. Olsen was excellent as an actress. She conveyed perfectly the stupor, the confusion in her disturbed mind, the conflict of emotions, the blurring of boundaries between illusion and reality and her uncertainty about what to believe any more, haunted by what she went through during those two or three years. and her resolution not to tell even her sister what she went on at the commune because she was sure that her sister and her husband would never understand her. here were some really sensuous photography and music was used sensitively to create just the right kind of atmosphere at the commune.Not a perfect film perhaps but to me, certainly one which deserves to be seen by more.


2012年3月28日 星期三

Hors Satan (Outside Satan) (魔

Last night, I saw another unusual film. This time, it was Hors Satan (Outside Satan) written and directed by the controversial Bruno Dumont, whose Hadewijch (2010) I first saw at the HKIFF about two years ago (http://blog.yahoo.com/_RWFMRMSMQUC64RZCV3HNB4NBJE/articles/121580). Though the settings of the two films are quite different: Hadewijch in Parisian suburb, Outside Satan in Côte d’Opale on the Atlantic Coast of northwestern France, they do share certain themes in common: violence, evil, good, Nature and spirituality. But the similarities do not end there. Dumont continues his quiet, brooding, static style of film making, as if he were merely observing and recording on the screen certain events in a remote small village with its cloudy, windswept, desolate sand dunes, woods, streams and ponds in northern France, without comment, without judgment. Everything is expressed by images. The film is even more sparing than Hadewijch in the use of sound. There is no music and hardly any dialogue, only the sound of breathing of the two nameless main characters played respectively by Alexandra Lemâtre ("Elle") and David Dewaele ("Le gars") as they make their daily trek to their place of rendezvous, either alone
or together, the crackling sound of their steps brushing against grass, fallen twigs and leaves or sand as they walk up and down
hills and dales, the sound of the wind,
the sea, the birds and the occasionally the sound of shot guns. 

As the film opens, we see a wooden door. A hand knocks on it. No one answers. We hear only the sound of a dog barking. The camera pans and zooms out and we see some broken down sheds, an old farm tractor and some hay and other farm implements lying on the ground and a wooden dwelling. The man walks away along a country road, reflective. He continues until he comes to a roadside shed. There, an innocent looking teenage girl with pierced metal rings on her ears, wearing a woolen sweat shirt and sweater was waiting, apparently shivering from the cold. She looks at him. He looks back at her and asks her if she was OK. She nods, They walk away. They go through some woods, some bushes and come to what looks like an abandoned quarry pit. In the centre of the sand pit, there is a tiny low half-finished brick wall upon which hang what looks like a few items of old clothes. They go down, without talking. When there, the man lights a fire with twigs. They look at the sky. They kneel down. They appear to be praying but in silence. We do not see any movement of their lips. After a short while, they rise. The man walks towards a water tower in the distance, goes in, picks up a gun and they return to the sandpitm, kneel down and pray again and then walk back to the houses we see at the opening scene,again in silence. When they are there, they hide behind a wall, waiting, the man's rifle raised towards the entrance of the shed about a hundred feet away. They continue waiting. A man finally emerges. The first man pulls the trigger. The second man falls. They walk away.

When the girl returns with the man, we see some policeman with the girl's mother in the distance. The girl observes them, then approaches, gives a slight squeeze on her mother's shoulder. When they are inside the house, sitting at the dinner table, the mother says that she is sorry for "he" did to her. The girl is silent and expressionless. Her mother continues to cry. From then on we see various scenes in which the man would drop by everyday to pick up a sandwich which the girl prepares for him and hands over to him through a slit at the entrance door and sometimes they would walk out together to their favorite rendezvous place, the sandpit by the windy sand dunes and watch the sea together and sometimes, the man would hunt some game with his rifle hidden in the water tower. He accidentally shot a deer when he was aiming at a bird and when he saw the deer convulsing in its dying pains, he put the deer out of misery by stoning its head with a rock, with a "stony" face..

One time, when they were sitting together, the girl asks the man to kiss her. He refuses. She asks why. He simply says no. Another time, they were spotted by a the forest guard of the protected national park property who ask them to leave. They ignore him. Another time, when the girl is there alone, the guard comes down to ask her if he can go out with her. She refuses.  On a third occasion, when the guard (Christophe Bon)  finds the girl alone at that sand pit, he says he wishes to kiss the girl. The girl act as if she did not hear and he kisses her. She does not reject. When the girl tells the man what the guard did, we find the guard beaten dead by the man in the woods. The man apparently also possesses some mysterious powers. He was sought out by a fat village woman when she found her daughter in a state of stupor, as if possessed by some evil spirit. The man enters her house and when he leaves, the girl was alright again. The fat woman thanked him profusely. We do not know what he did. A second time, when the girl was again possessed, he held her down and kissed her on the mouth and after that, the girl was normal again. A third time, there was a fire at the outskirts of the village. The girl told the man she did not like the sight of it. He took her to a small reservoir and asked her to walk through the path formed by the narrow top of a partitioning wall dividing the reservoir into two parts. As she walked, the fire abated and even went out completely when she successfully completed the perilous journey  A fourth time, the man was accosted by a lone teenage female hiker on her way to Boulogne, offered the man a beer and asked if he wanted to fuck her. He did not object. The girl undressed. He did so but she foamed at the mouth as if she were dead and passed over but later revived. In the course of the lovemaking, she left some scratches on the body of the man. When the girl saw them when he next met him, he explained he got scratched in the woods. The girl smiled knowingly.

The girl goes out to the pit to look for the man again at dawn. He is sleeping at the sandpit. After adjusting a log at the dying fire, the girl leaves, thinking. On the way back, she stops, stares at some bushes. The next we know, we see an ambulance and the ambulance men carrying a body out from the woods and the girl's crying mother. The girls body is laid down on a white sheet with two long white candles at the side inside a room at her home. When her mother leaves the house for some business, the man enters. He takes the body carefully out to the side of a pond near to where they used to sit together, lays her down, prays and then leaves. Shortly afterwards, we see the girl resurrected, coughing and rubbing her eyes upon the same white sheet at the side of the life giving pond. .

When the surrealistic film ends, we see the man walking with a backpack and a dog, which used to bark ferociously at him and which used to belong to a fat man in the village whom the girl previously told him she did not like who for some reasons, the police suspected was the murderer of the girl's step-father and had been led away in the police van. 

It's a very enigmatic film. I do not know what Dumont is trying to say or if he is interested in saying anything at all. We are only given vague and ambiguous clues, hints, suggestions and never really know why the man has those strange powers nor why he goes to and leaves that village and why he never touches the girl who is obviously in love with him. We do not even know the name of any of the characters in the film. All we got are magnificent panoramic images of the barren and desolate seaside marshland with its high sand dunes, its streamlets, its ponds, its skies, its woods, its clouds, its sunsets, its seas, its bushes and the worshipful attitude the man and the girl take towards them as if the fire, the wind, the earth and the water had some mysterious regenerative powers in them. The man certainly looks a bit like the traditional image of Jesus! After all, Dumont did make a film in 1997 called "the Life of Jesus". Is he an outsider "Jesus" figure who would not hesitate to turn violent but only against people who tarnishes the innocence of young girls?  Or is he merely a shaman of some kind of primitive folk religion? Is the water tower by the sea where the man hides his shotgun a phallic symbol (the girl leans against its wall listening to music and it rises starkly against the sky amidst lush green bushes)? Is the countryside filled with lush green plants a symbol of feminine passivity or power? Is he trying to say that violence may have its use? Is the girl drawn towards the man because of such mystique? Is he an angel in the guise of the devil?  Is he trying to explore the ambiguous boundaries between what is conventionally regarded as good and evil? Is it "hors Satan" or "Dehors! Satan!"? I really don't know.


2012年3月27日 星期二

Fear of Falling (父與子的天與地)

My fourth film at the HKIFF is another unusual film. When the screen lights up, we see some ceiling lights, plenty of capacitors and switches. Then we see the  back and half a face, rushing along a corridor in a big hurry, mounting some steps, it reaches a door, knocks, asking its inmate to open the door but no one does.He opens the doors with a key. We see the inside of a room with everything in a mess. The young man in his thirties rummages through the drawers, the desks. He is looking for something. He finds bits of papers, reads them over quickly and then throws them away. He says in anger, "I can't believe it. The bastard! He doesn't even leave me a single word". The young man is a TV news anchor and the "bastard" is his father. The film also ends with a repeat of this opening scene in that messy room.

The second scene shows the young man in a public square in front of some TV camera doing an interview. Next we find him inside the sitting room of a modern apartment in front of a huge TV screen watching himself on what was filmed a little earlier. At his side is a young woman trying to caress and tease him. He locks her in an embrace. She talks about changing to a new flat because she is pregnant.  He looks a bit surprised. The girl asks him if he is glad. He hesitates a little and says, "Sure" and kisses her. We learn that they had been together for two years. He looks a bit surprised that they had been together for that long.

Next we see the young man speeding in a car along a super highway, his face worried. He reaches the reception counter of a mental hospital, asks for his father and says he has been called by someone at the hospital. They ask him who that may be. He says it's Janiki. They check through the records and tells him that the man is on the third floor. He goes up and see various mental patients in white hospital robes in what looks like a common room. One of them, with his back against him sitting in front of the TV is watching the news. He finds his own face on the TV screen. He watches him for a while and moves into the room. He looks into the eyes of his father and says , "Dad. Long time no see. How do you feel? ". His father looks at him, without any expression, without a word. He repeats the question. Still it draws only a blank face. He is angry and tells his father that he has driven 300 KM all the way from Warsaw just to see him and his father hasn't got a single word for him to tell how he is doing or how he feels. The father remains wordless. He asks his father what he needs. His father points to some socks worn by some other patients in the room. He goes down, buys them but asks for them to be delivered to his father and then leaves.

The film, Fear of Falling (2011), is the debut feature by Polish director Bartosz Konopka, co-written by him and Piotr Konopka, starring Krzysztof Stroinski (Janiki the mentally disordered father), Marcin Doroncinski (Tomasz, the TV news anchor), Dorota Kolak (Tomasz's mother) and Madalena Poplawska ( Tomasz's wife)., is, in the words of the director, about "the fear of living, fear of
meeting challenges of everyday life" and how such "fear may be confronted and overcome". In this film there are constant flashbacks about how as a child, Tomasz accompanied his father in climbing a cold, bare, craggy mountains to reach its peak, how they had happier moments when his father would touch him on the head when he was snugly tugged in his bed at night and some happier moments when the whole family went out on an outing, how one evening, the young Tomasz found his father in a state of stupor, slumped upon a chair in front of the desk after he threw the TV upon it out of the window  and how even now he would still have occasional bolts of uncontrollable rage in which he throws everything in sight about and how when he was poor, he had to save enough money to buy a decent overcoat before daring to going into a local electronic store to select his first TV set, how after learning about it , Tomasz immediately brings his father to the same shop and buys him the latest flat screen TV. 

Shortly after the third scene,Tomasz tries to sell the flat where his father had been living since his childhood so that his father may exchange it for a better flat but when he brings a lady real estate agent in to do an appraisal,  we see how his father flew into another rampage. Tomasz felt bad about doing so without first consulting his father and thereafter, despite his busy schedule, he would pay him a weekly visit either at his father's house or at the mental hospital .

His girl friend took Tomasz to see his parents after the pregnancy shortly after his promotion to be the news anchor at the 6 p.m. news
instead of being a roving reporter but in the middle of the meal at their house, he leaves because he could not stand it any longer. He was probably thinking of his father. Eventually he couldn't take the strain of having to work and to look after his father at the same time and just stared blankly in front of the TV camera during one of the nightly new casts and resigned. He took his father to the mountains, climbed up to the peak again, where they sat quietly together to watch the snow on the mountain and the calm water of the glacial lake. Only then did his father start to talk again.  But that did not last long. Soon his father reverted into his former silence. If he wanted to say something, he would simply hand in bits of paper and write on them.

Tomasz's mother just made two brief appearances in the film, once on a video phone to Tomasz to ask him how he is and the other time when she
unexpectedly dropped by to see his father, who flew into another rage.
In the conversation between mother and son, the mother said she had
enough of her husband's erratic and incomprehensible mood swings and
left because she could not take it any more. Her son did not say
anything.

In the meantime, Tomasz had moved to a new apartment and had a new baby and shortly after he had that trip to the mountain of his childhood with his father,, when his former boss came to visit him to invite him to rejoin him because he himself could now decide who to hire as Tomasz was sorely missed by his former fans on the U-tube, his father came to his new apartment, unannounced, to pay him a visit and to touch the abdomen of his wife to feel the baby but would only communicate with him with bits of paper. Life goes on. It's a moving film about the estranged human relationship in contemporary Western society, if Poland can be considered part of the West and about how if we find the story credible, even long ruptured relationships between father and son may be slowly rebuilt, though not with complete success, by one of them reaching out with perseverance, with patience and above all, with genuine and unconditional love, even if one of the parties to the relationship may be mentally disturbed.Tomasz made the effort and met the challenge. He had overcome his "fear of falling" from the heights.

The film's pace is fast, the atmosphere well captured, the acting by Stroinski and Doroncinski superb and the spare music used effectively. I have no complaints except that perhaps the director could have dwelt a little more on what caused Tomasz.'s  father to go into his psychotic state in the first place.


2012年3月26日 星期一

Colours of Marima

Marimba is an instrument much used in South American music. it's not that often that we find it in a "classical" concert. But we did, at the HKPO concert at the City Hall Saturday evening. The programme that night is not the kind we are likely to get everyday. We had a piece I heard for the first time that evening. It's Bright Sheng's Colours of Crimson.

According to the Programme Note, Shanghai-born Sheng entered the Conservatory of Music there in 1978 to study composition, then emigrated to America in 1982 and has since written operas, symphonies, chamber, instrumental, choral and vocal pieces. The composition we had that evening was commissioned by the Luxembourg Philharmonic Orchestra and was composed for Evelyn Glennie, the famous drummer, first premiered in Luxembourg in September 2004. The piece was written whilst he was in Qinghai using local folk melodies. I don't know why he used the mirimba as its solo instrument in this piece, whose sound he enriched by using orchestral accompaniment. It sounds a bit strange to my ears. Apart from its novelty, it didn't sound particularly appealing to me. But it's good that someone tried to think outside of the box of tradition.

We next had another very lively piece, Bartok's Dance Suite BB86a. It also employed traditional folk song elements, but this time, such materials came from Hungarian folk music. Bartok didn't actually use any melody but merely used certain motifs in such music. The result is a very powerfully rhythmic.One feels the force of eeriness and even darkness in the piece. Some has suggested that the dance concerned is the dance of elves and gnomes. I don't know about that. But it certainly elicited different kinds of moods in me.

The mood of the next piece was entirely different. It was light and fun. We had Darius Milhaud's Le boeuf sur le toit (The ox over the Roof), actually the name of a bar in Paris and was originally composed as the background music to Jean Cocteau's pantomine of the same name. it is full of South American liveliness because Milhaud was then the cultural attaché to Brazil at the time he wrote it. Milhaud actually gave the piece a sub-ttile "Cinema-Fantasie on South American Themes". It is supposed to reflect Cocteau's slaptick of a huge black boxer being knocked out by a tiny looking bookmaker, a tall transvestite who picks up a black dwarf and carries him into the billiard room for you know what, and a police coming into the bar to enforce Prohibition laws being beheaded by a falling ceiling fan after dancing a tango! It was completely mad, as the title suggests.
 
The last piece we had was an American jazz standard; Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue but with a twist: pride of place was given to the marimba, played by Pius Cheng, who is excellent and obviously enjoyed himself thoroughly.  The conductor of the evening was a new face to me, Singapore's Johua Tan who says that "there is a tantalizing and kaleidoscopic array of styles in this concert". I can't agree more with him. The HKPO was excellent as usual, especially the brass and percussion sections. Although I was a bit tired after having seen a movie in the morning and did some photographing in the afternoon, it was well worth my while. I enjoyed the music.


Elena (母親的罪愛)

The film Elena (2011), by Andrei Zvyaginstev, a young Russian director, opens with a lone crow perched upon a leafless tree outside a steel and glass modern Moscow suburban apartment, silent, observing the apartment. It cries. It is soon joined by another crow. The camera switches inside. It shows a dimly lit and sparsely but stylishly decorated and impeccably clean interior of the apartment, with austere leather and steel sofas, a tidy writing desk and chair: all straight lines and right angles and glistening surfaces. Then the camera shows a narrow single bed. An alarm clock rings. A figure under the sheets stirs. A fat arms reaches out and presses the stop button on top of the small electronic alarm clock . It belongs to a rather plump and ordinary looking lady in her late fifties or early sixties, Elena (Nadezhda Markina). She gets up, looks at herself in the mirror, adjust her hair, then goes into the kitchen, carefully prepares a meal on a tray. She brings it into another room with closed sliding doors. She knocks gently, enters and moves over gingerly to the side of an enormous bed, opens the curtains, gives a gentle poke on the figure under the blanket over the bed, an old man, and tells him its time to wake up. The old man is Vladmir (Andrei Smirnov). We learn later that they are in fact husband and wife, married for two years although they'd been together for 9 and sleep in separate rooms. The man used to be her patient at the hospital where she was working. She looks more a maid than a "wife".

We next see her dressing, taking a bus, then a train to visit her son, living in a run down state housing estate, close to three power plants. There we find a late thirty-ish man leaning against the metal railing on the verandah, smoking, looking at the courtyard below, but at nothing in particular. That's Sergei (Alexey Rozin),her son from a previous marriage. Inside, we find a baby barely more than a year old, trying to get up on the mattress of a bed whilst another teenager on the floor, his back against the wall of another small room, engaged in playing a video game. The young man enters the small crowded and messy sitting room, opens the frige and asks for another beer. Elena knocks on the door. No one answers. She had to call out the names of her son Sergei and then Sasha her grandson (Igor Ogurtsov) etc. It was obvious that it was a  family which didn't care about anything, including courtesy.

When the film ends, we see the same crows upon that same tree, except that inside that same apartment, we find Sergei (whom the old Vladimir had regularly supported by a monthly stipend) and the slob's pregnant wife and Sasha, his 16 year old hooligan son and another the baby girl. Vladimir had just died before he had time to make out a will after his discharge from  hospital following an earlier heart attack whilst swimming at a gymn. The day before he die, he indicated to Elena that he would like to make a will in which he would give everything to his hedonistic daughter Katya (Elena Lyadova) and would leave her a reasonable annuity for life. He died because along with his breakfast, his "wife" had given him some additional pills which she discovered from a pharmaceutical book in the bookshelf the previous day could never be taken with the pills prescribed by Vladimir's doctor upon his discharge. All his life, Vladimir had been very careful about earning money. As far as spending money is concerned, he adopts more or less the same but a slightly more generous approach. Perhaps because of his attitude, he has hardly any true friends. At least in the film, we don't see anyone calling him out  for drinks, meals, travels etc. But life plays tricks on or games with him. First his wife, then his daughter, all spends his hard earned cash something which he apparently does not mind and his second nurse-maid-wife even kills him for his money.

What caused the Elena to do what she did? About a week ago, Vladimir told her that after a week's careful consideration, he had decided to refuse her request that he help her 16-year-old grandson, Sasha , whom she knew had little interest in studies, because Sergei needed some bribe money to pay the relevant college official to secure a place for Sasha;s college entrance so that the latter can avoid the Russian army draft. Vladimir told Elena that there was no reason why her own son should not take up the responsibility as his own son's father for the welfare of Sasha and solve his own financial problem on his own. He said that for her sake, he had already been supporting Sergei regularly and there was no reason why he should bear the extra burden of supporting her grandson's education as well and added that if it were a question of Sergei or Sasha being in hospital, the money would be on her desk the next day. On that occasion, she tried to argue with him and said his own daughter, Katya (Elena Lyadova),.a loose living girl who drinks and even takes drugs (but for whose affection and love he still deeply craves), was also entirely dependent on him. He said that he was discussing her son's problem and that she should not drag in the way he treated his own daughter, which for him is an entirely separate issue. Katya in fact seldom gets in touch with her father and if it were not for his hospitalization and Elena's pleading for her to go see him because her husband had specifically asked her whilst on the hospital bed, to look for her after the heart attack in which he nearly died, she would probably never had gone to see him. When she went, we see how despite their differences, he daughter really still loved him.

The film. Zvyaginstev's third, having debuted with The Return in 2003, followed by The Banishment in 2007, all about family bonding, is a calm, matter of fact analysis of current social division between the rich and the poor: the hardworking, rational previous generation with the current irresponsible Russian younger generation, relying on state welfare or on their parents, incapable of self-reliance. It raises many questions: the conflict between reason and instinct for survival, between the rich and the poor, the effects of excessive parental affection for their offspring, economic and sexual exploitation of the poor by the rich and question of social and moral justice. It's done mostly in long static shots, a method which certainly gives the audience plenty of time for reflection. I like the music in the film by Philip Glass, endless repetition of a motif. Does that suggest that Elena is not just an individual but a paradigm of the doting mother except that once the interest of her brood is concerned, she would not hesitate o kill? Is her marriage to Vladimir not merely just a mutually convenient "arrangement": his cash in exchange for her companionship, house keeping and occasional  sex on the side? The film got 4 awards at this year’s Golden Eagle Awards in Moscow, for Best Film, Best Director, Best Supporting Actress and
Best Cinematography in January this year.    



2012年3月25日 星期日

The ALPS (解穢四人幫)

My second film at the HKIFF is a rather unusual film, in every sense of the word.

When the film ALPS opens, we see a slim 16-year-old teenage girl training hard on rhythmic gymnastic, ending by tying the ribbon that she used in her dance number tightly around her neck, slumped on the floor, saying that she couldn't do it because the music was classical. She wanted to switch the rhythm to that of pop. Her coach said she could not. She asked why. He told her that she was not ready. She asked again. He repeated that she was ready neither for pop, nor jazz nor a modern dance. She was not convinced. He told her flatly that when he said she was not ready, she was not ready and that she could quit if she wanted to but that if she raised the request again, he would break her arms and her legs.

Next we see the victim of a car accident being rushed to on a trolley to the emergency ward of a hospital, a young girl whose face was completely disfigured. She was attended to by a young female nurse ( Aggeliki Papoulia). She formed a friendship with her and learned that she was a tennis player whose mother was a tennis champion. Her chances of survival were not good and eventually died.

Through talking to a fellow male paramedic at their working room at the hospital, she learned that he was a member of an underground group called the ALPS which offered a peculiar service to their clients: to act as surrogate for the departed dearly beloved of paying clients to help them smooth over the emotional traumas arising from the loss of their loved ones. She was interested and was brought to see the leader of the group. It was the gymnastic coach we saw in the opening scene, who took the pseudonym of Mont Blanc. She was told why the group called itself the ALPS: that's because the Alps is the highest mountain in Europe and could replace any other but not the other way round. She had to swear to abide by the 15 rules of the group: viz. ALPS members must declare in advance the things they
are unwilling to do by filling out Form (e.g. kissing, lifting weights,
travelling etc.), the things they are good at by filling out Form (e.g. dancing, water skiing, discussing etc.), have some basic knowledge of psychology and sociology,  are obliged to support, under all circumstances, the interests of the ALPS group, respect each other,  have the right to change their nickname only twice but not a
nickname belonging to another Alps member such nickname must be the name of a mountain in the Alps, and not something general or
irrelevant (e.g. Blonde, Master, Dragon etc.), can never talk about ALPS activities with non-ALPS members, are obliged to take the Gymnastics Club Test, if necessary, over 14 years of age, should always be smart, clean, punctual, and in complete control, never get emotionally involved with clients, or have intimate relations with them,not change their physical appearance without the Leader’s permission
(e.g. dye hair, lose or gain weight, wear colored contact lenses etc., must be able to make convincing facial expressions (sadness, happiness, despair etc.), honor the title of their membership, and be ready to kill or die for it and finally never attack one another and must believe in teamwork. She was told she would be told the result after a few days. She was admitted.

From then on, we see her doing various assignments, making two hour stints once every week, dressing and acting and in general assuming another personality and adopting the mannerism of a deceased or departed according to the details supplied by their clients,: first to comfort the owner of a lamp shop for the departure of her girl friend, then to read the gossip column of a local magazine to an old blind lady, then a man for the loss of her teenage daughter. At the end of the film, she was hit with a club at the Gymnast Club and expelled because she broke a rule: she got too emotionally involved with her roles and acted without permission from the group. When the film ends, we see the gymnast dancing to the tune of pop music.

The screenplay was co-written by Efthymis Filippou  with the director Yorgos Lanthimo (Kinetta 2004, Dogtooth 2009). It premiered in Greece in October last year and stars Ariane Labed (as the young gymnast), Aggeliki Papoulia (as the nurse or Monte Rosa, her name in the group), Aris Servetalis (the paramedic and assistant coach) and Johnny Vekris ( the coach and Mont Blanc ).

It was a very original film on the activities of a fringe group in Greece, a cool analysis of Lanthimos's home country, its apparent objectivity emphasized by the tinge of blue in the screen images of everything portrayed, perhaps to emphasize the surface calm and objectivity which hides the clandestine emotional pains, the violence and the the secret power of authoritarian male values lurking beneath that deceptively peaceful appearance of contemporary Greek society. It's bizarre tale told in a very unique way peculiar to the sensibility of Lanthimos. However, we are not given any clues to why the women folks submitted to such male authority. It won the best screenplay award at the Venice film festival last year.




2012年3月24日 星期六

Saturday Jokes

Saturday again! Joke time. What's hottest today? Politics of course! Do we know what politics is?  "Poli" in Latin means "many". Isn't "tics"  "bloodsucking creatures"? But to me politics is all jokes!

1. Four years ago, my brother ran for Legco.

    What does he do now?


    Nothing. He got elected.


2. Why don't we ever hear of a thief stealing from a politician's house?

    Professional courtesy.

3. Mum: What makes you think our son will be a politician?

    Dad: He says more things that sound good and mean nothing than any other boy on the block.

4. What would be a good way to raise revenue and still benefit the people?'

    "Tax every political speech made in this country!"

5. Disappointed candidate: "And I thought sure I heard the voice of the people calling me."

     Friend: "It must have been yourself thinking out loud!"

6  "I'm taking political economy at college."

     "That is a useless course. Why learn to economize in politics? It's not being done."

7. Full of enthusiasm, she had gone in for politics. She was out of the
house most of the day. She returned at ten O'clock and
sank into an arm
chair.

   "Everything is grand," she said, "we're going to sweep the whole territory."

    Her husband looked round wearily and said: "Why not start with the dining room?"



Have a fun weekend. We deserve one after all the depressing antics we hear about  from the invisible hand  across the border.    

2012年3月23日 星期五

Crazy Horse (癲馬艶舞團)






Though I have seen hundreds of documentaries, I never saw a documentary as visually stunnning as Frederick Wiseman's Crazy Horse (2011), my opening film at the HKIFF. But it probably wasn't the first in which Wiseman explores the forms and motions of the human body, having done Ballet in 1995, La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet in 2009 and The Boxing Gym in 2010.

As the film opens, we see a shadow show upon a yellow screen mounted against pitch black background. We see the shadows of a pair of hands forming the shape of a camel, then changing into profile of a devil. This is followed by a short episode of two girls rehearsing love making. We are then taken on a whirligig tour what went on at the back stage of the Crazy Horse, probably the world's best revue of naked female forms, done with taste, with grace and with elegance. We see naked girls putting on their false eye-lashes, painting their eye-lines, getting into their gears, chatting with each other, we see the director of the show, Philippe Decouflé, moving with utmost grace with his boneless body on a darkened stage, teaching the girls how to move their hands across their body to the tune of some jazz rhythms, the girls rehearsing various numbers, including singing the theme song of the Crazy Horse, supposed to bring to the audience the paroxysm of  seduction, of desire and of Parisien eroticism and sheer joy in the beauty of the female form with particular emphasis on the perfect form of their butts. We see the meticulous care taken by those involved in stage lighting, effects, costumes, choreography, music etc, all for one sole purpose viz. to showcase the best erotic spectacle in the world; we see their ideal, their desire for perfection, their enthusiasm, their ideals, their devotion, their dedication and their frustration. We see what goes on to make up the shows not only from the point of view of the dancers but what the such shows mean to the photographer, the promoters, the project manager, the lighting engineer, the sound engineer and technicians and of course, the customers. It's a fairly comprehensive look. We also see the nitty gritty of running the club, in existence since 1951: the bar, the champagne ice bucket , the tables, the seats, the entrance, the posters, the booking, the cleaning up as well as snippets of the relevant shows.

There is a constant need to create new shows for each season along with the classic crowd drawers. We see how they strive to showcase the beauty of female forms in all sorts of stage settings, stage lighting as well as all conceivable ways of displaying feminine curves in all kinds of suggestive postures and movements from pole dance in solo or duo or groups or the more traditional can cans as well as tap dancing by two men. We see how young hopefuls are auditioned and how those involved discuss their bodies as if they were works of art ,.

The pace of the film is brisk. To give depth to the film, we are also shown how the artistic director Ali Mahdavi, is interviewed, how and why he chose to work for the Crazy Horse, his role in the production, his concern about creating new effects, his relation to the director and his professional concern about how the girls would look and how to display their natural beauty. Through his mouth, we learn of his infectious drive for beauty and how he feels and what he thinks about what he is doing and how some of the girls would work very hard at their dance movements and improve and how some merely rely upon their natural good looks. According to him, the French government should make it obligatory for secondary school student to attend their show for their education.

What delights me most is the camera work, which simply takes one's breath away. It is literally a kaleidoscope of the most beautiful use of the different kind of lighting and color on the screen and the most exquisite combination of geometrical forms with the curves of female bodies, a veritable feast of colors and forms. The film ends the way it begins, with a shadow show of the same pair of hands, which finishes by projecting on the screen the black shadow of a bird flying away. It was simply delicious. 




From Soul, to Self, to Annihilation of Self.17

Cont'd

What happens when we follow Ricard's advice and do the relevant meditations.? He says this: "The first things we notice are the currents of thought that are continuously flowing without our even being aware of them." He thinks that our countless thoughts are born of our "sensations, our memories and our imaginations" which constantly stream through our mind. He tell us that underlying them and behind them, there is something else. "There is a quality of mind that is always present no matter what kind of thoughts we entertain", something he calls "pure consciousness." Pure consciousness is "what remains in the rare moment when the mind is at rest, almost motionless, even as it retains its ability to know.". He says, "That faculty, that simple open presence"  is called "pure consciousness" because "it exists even in the absence of mental constructs." What is it like? It has neither any particular localization, nor color nor shape and has no intrinsic features of their own. He says, "In pure consciousness, we experience the mind as empty of inherent existence." He realizes that this notion of emptiness is very foreign to Western psychology and I might add, even to the busy mind of the contemporary city man.

Ricard explains. When a powerful emotion or thought arises e.g anger arises, "we are very easily overwhelmed by this thought, which multiplies into numerous new thoughts that disturb and blind us and prompt us to utter words and commit acts, sometimes violent ones, that can make others suffer and soon become a source of regret" But instead of unleashing our anger, we can examine the angry thought itself and come to see that it has been nothing but "smoke and mirrors from the start.". His experience is that "thoughts emerge from pure consciousness and are then re-absorbed in it, just as waves from the ocean and dissolve into it again." Once we understand this, we would have taken a great leap forward toward inner peace. From the moment we realize that, then the force of that anger will have lost its power to disturb us. He asks us during such moments when such angry thought first arises, to try to see where it came from and when it disappears, ask ourselves where it went. He says, "In that instant when past thoughts have fallen silent and future ones have yet to emerge, you can perceive a pure and luminous consciousness unadulterated by your conceptual constructs. 

Ricard does not say that it is easy to attain such a state of pure consciousness. But he says it is possible. He cites an example, his friend Francisco Varela, a cognitive scientists who researches on consciousness and who died of cancer and who before his death told Ricard that he had managed to spend all his time in that kind of pure consciousness. According to Varela, the physical pain seemed "very distant to him" and was "no hindrance to his inner peace" and he only needed weak doses of painkillers and his wife, Amy, told Ricard that Varela maintained that "contemplative serenity" until his very last breath. 

Ricard gives us an exercise to stay in awareness

Look at what is behind the curtain of discursive thoughts. Try to find a waking presence there, free of mental fabrications, transparent, luminous, untroubled by thoughts of the past, the present, or the future. Try to rest in the present moment, free of concepts. Watch the nature of the gap between thoughts, which is free from mental constructs. Gradually extend the interval between the disappearance of one thought and the emergence of the next. Remain in a state of simplicity that is free of mental constructs, yet perfectly aware,; beyond effort, yet alert and mindful." According to Ricard, we we thus observe the wellspring of thoughts, it is possible to break their endless proliferation.

(To be cont'd):
 . 

2012年3月22日 星期四

From Soul, to Self, to Annihilation of Self.16

Cont'd

Now that we understand a little what true freedom and liberation means, we need to understand something else: the ultimate source of all our unhappiness: our own thoughts. Ricard quotes Alain "When we are unhappy, we can't help thinking that certain images are armed with claws and stingers to torture us with".We sometimes get the feeling that our life is falling apart e.g. when our beloved (our parents, spouse, lover, children) or a close friend or a long time colleague dies, or is in a serious illness, or during a break up with our mate, in a financial or job crisis etc. There seems to be no way out at all. As Ricard says, sadness settles like a pall over the mind...Unable to imagine an end to our pain, we withdraw into ourselves and dread every coming moment." When we lack adequate inner resources to enable us to deal with suhka e.g. the joy of being alive, the conviction that we still got the ability to flourish despite all difficulties, an understanding of the ephemeral nature of all things, our happiness will be afflicted by distress.

According to Ricard, "great external upheavals" may not be what cause most distress to us. Thus depression and suicide rates drop dramatically during times of war and natural disasters often bring out the best in man: courage, solidarity, will to survive, altruism and mutual assistance. What tie knots in our breast that obstinately refuse to be unraveled and sorrow or sadness that refuse be consoled, that oppress us and cause us untold misery are often just "thoughts". Ricard says that "thoughts can be our best friends" but they can become our worst enemies when they make us feel that the entire world is against us, when every perception, every encounter and the very existence of the world become sources of torment. "It is our thoughts themselves that rise up as enemies. They stampede through our mind in droves, each one creating its own little drama of ever-increasing confusion. Nothing is right outside because nothing is right inside." Ricard says that the "knots are not tied in our chest by our unfaithful husband, our object of desire, our dishonest colleague, or our unjust accuser, but by our own mind. It is the result of mental constructs that, as they accumulate and solidify, give the illusion of being external and real." Its ultimate source is our "self", our "ego" or in traditional parlance, our "soul". "What provides the raw material for that knot and allows it to form within us is an exacerbated sense of self-importance" : " anything that does not respond to the self's demands becomes a disturbance, a threat or an insult." According to Andew Solomon, "In depression, all that is happening in the present is the anticipation of pain in the future, and the present qua present no longer exists at all" (The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression 2001). According to a great Buddhist master Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche: "these trains of thought and states of mind are constantly changing, like the shapes of clouds in the wind, but we attach great importance to them. An old man watching children at play knows very well that their games are of little consequence. He feels neither elated nor upset at what happens in their game, while the children take it all very seriously. We are just exactly them."  (The Heart Treasure of the Enlightened Ones 1993)

Unless we acknowledge and understand the true causes of human misery, of our dukkha (suffering) and of our sukha (happiness), "our well-being is at the mercy of the storm." We can "respond to heartbreaks by trying to forget them distracting ourselves, moving away, going on a trip and so on, but these are merely plaster casts on a wooden leg." Ricard quotes Nicolas Boileau: "In vain he flees his troubles on a horse--They shake the saddle and see him on his course" (Epitre V à Guilleragues 1995)

Knowing now that the main cause of our suffering is our natural mental
habit and tendencies to make distinctions in a dualistic fashion, we
must now learn how to avoid suffering and increase the chances of our
happiness. Ricard asks, "How can we prevent the perpetual re-ermergence
of disturbing thoughts?" He says, "If we resign ourselves to being the
perpetual victims of our thoughts, we are like dogs who run after every
stick thrown for them. Closely identifying with every thought, we follow
it and reinforce it with boundless emotional entanglements" Obviously
we do not want to be in that kind of state. Is there anything we can do?
Most certainly yes. And Ricard teaches us how.

And he asks our questions for us: how do we go about making peace with our emotions?  He starts at
the beginning. He advises us "first, we have to focus our mind on the raw
power of inner suffering.Instead of avoiding it or burying it away in some dark corner of our
mind, we should make it the object of our meditation, without ruminating
over the events that caused the pain or reviewing every freeze-frame
from the movie of our life.When a painful emotion strikes us, the most
urgent thing is to look at it head-on and to identify he immediate
thoughts that triggered and are fanning it. Then by fixing our inner
gaze on the emotion itself, we can gradually dissolve it like snow in
sunshine". According to his experience, once the strength of the emotion has been sapped, the causes that trigger it will seem less tragic and we will have won ourselves the chance to break free from the vicious circle of negative thoughts."

(to be cont'd)                                                                   

2012年3月19日 星期一

From Soul, to Self, to Annihilation of Self.15

(Cont'd)

In this blog series, I have ranged through the storehouses of various religious traditions to find out what each tradition understands by the concept of what many have found convenient to describe by the everyday word human "sou/spirit", often used by us very loosely to refer to what is conceived of as the reality upon which we base our notions of man's moral accountability, about its "true" nature. Why is it important to find that out? Why should we be concerned at all with whether or not we got a "soul" and if we have one, what its nature may be? To me, such questions would be of purely academic interest only if we were to consider them in isolation from other far more important questions: how to live properly and how to live happily here on earth and the nature of "happiness"..

With the advance of our understanding of the functioning the physical universe, our brain, our memory, our emotions, the functioning of our physiology, the nature of community and morality based on the methods of the empirical and social sciences, it is now far more usual to think of the way we act as based upon  our brain, our rational, the emotional processes rather than as based on the activities of our "soul", an outdated concept favored still only by various forms of theologies of reward and punishment and based upon whether and if so, how the human "soul" may be treated by a "supernatural entity" called "God" or gods. According to the Abrahamic faith, the universe is created by a monotheistic God who created inter alia, the human "soul" and who determines the "meaning" or "purpose" of our life here on earth. Our "soul" is supposed to be have an existence independent of that of our body and may continue to exist after our physical death and is in that sense "immortal". Why do we need an immortal  'soul"?  Unless we posit such a "soul", what believers think of as the final "day of judgment" would make no sense. Only when we have such a "soul" can it be made to "enjoy" eternal "happiness" of "heaven" and if we have led our lives on earth badly, to "suffer" eternal punishment in "hell". Why do we need to invent the concept of "heaven" and "hell"? To me, its only purpose is to serve as an inducement to us to do good and as a threat to make us avoid doing evil, through the twin psychological mechanisms of "hope" and "fear", by analogy to the way we induce and force such animals as our horse or donkey or ass, which we use as our "beasts of burden" to do physically exhausting and mentally boring work for us: the method of the "carrot" and the 'stick", a trusted and well tested method which human experience has found quite effective.

Can we be induced to do good and avoid doing evil without positing the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient and an all perfect God? Is the mysterious, arbitrary and jealous God of the Abrahamic faith absolutely necessary for the practices of human morality? I would submit that we can. The Buddhists do not find the existence of such a God necessary. They rely merely on the use of our reason and on insightful observations of what makes us happy and what makes us miserable. They have through deep meditation and vigilant observation of the functioning of the human mind, the human consciousness and the coming and going of human emotions developed some fairly sophisticated theories of how we may attain happiness in a rather more stable and permanent form.
 
I return now to the text of Matthieu Ricard I mentioned at the start of this series, "Happiness". Many think that to be "free" is to be master of oneself, involving freedom of action, movement and opinion, the chance to achieve such goals as they have set themselves or "doing anything" that they want. Ricard thinks that although spontaneity is a precious quality, anarchic freedom to fulfill our immediate desires is unlikely to bring happiness. "If we let the hounds of craving (貪) , jealousy (嫉), arrogance (妄) and resentment (嗔) run amok in our mind, they will soon take over." To him, "inner freedom is a vast, clear, and serene space that dispels pain and nourishes peace" and inner freedom is above all, "freedom from the dictatorship of 'me' and 'mine' of the ego that clashes whatever it dislikes and seeks desperately to appropriate whatever it covets". and being free comes down to "breaking down the bond of afflictions that dominate and cloud the mind" . It means, he says, "taking life into one's own hand",instead of abandoning it to tendencies created by habit and mental confusion. It is a way of "becoming fed up with being manipulated like a puppet by selfishness, the scramble for power and possessions, and the never-ending quest for pleasure." Such an approach is merely pragmatic. We must never treat ourselves too harshly. "Understanding that we are neither perfect nor completely happy is not a weakness" but a ":very healthy acknowledgment that has nothing to do with self-pity, pessimism or a lack of self-confidence." For many, the idea of renunciation and non-attachment implies "a dank dungeon of asceticism and discipline" and a "depressing privation of life's pleasures"  but to Ricard, "true renunciation is more like a bird soaring into the sky when its cage is opened": suddenly, "the endless concerns that had oppressed the mind are gone, allowing the free expression" of our inner potentials. Renunciation, he rightly points out, is not about "depriving ourselves of that which brings us joy and happiness" . "It is about abandoning what causes us inexhaustible and relentless distress. It is about having the courage to rid ourselves of dependency on the root causes of suffering" It comes down to asking ourselves with certain aspect of our lives: "Is this going to make me happier?" To him, genuine happiness, as opposed to contrived euphoria, endures through life's ups and downs. We need to learn to free ourselves of the burden of the past as well as the burden of future fear. We need to ask ourselves: "What is the point of worrying about things that no longer exist and things that do not yet exist?" Inner freedom will allow us to "savor the lucid simplicity of the present moment", free from the intrusive memories of past pains, hatreds, thoughts of revenge and emancipated from fear of pointless fretting about future. Such clearheadedness allows us the joy to accept things peacefully and to use all life's circumstances, favorable and adverse, as catalysts for personal change and to avoid being arrogant when they are favorable and depressed when they are not.

One of the ways Ricard taught is also taught by Henry David Thoreau, who said, "our life is frittered away by detail...Simplify, simplify". Renunciation involves "simplifying our acts, our speech and our thoughts to rid ourselves of the superfluous." A lot of social conversation consists of torrent of words that are not only useless, but aggravate covetousness, hostility and vanity. "Appropriate speech avoids self-serving lies, cruel words and gossips whose only effect is to distract us and sow discord." Simplicity is always "adapted to circumstances, gentle or firm as required, and the product of an altruistic and controlled mind." But we must not confuse a simple mind with being simple-minded. "Like clear water that lets us see all the way to the lake bottom, simplicity reveals the nature of mind behind the veil of restless thought." As André Compte-Sponville, a French philosopher says, "The simple person lives the way he breathes, with no more effort or glory, with no more affectation and without shame...Simplicity is freedom, buoyancy, transparency. As simple as the air, as free as the air,...The simple person does not take himself too seriously, or too tragically. He goes on his merry way, his heart light, his soul at peace, without goal, without nostalgia, without impatience. The world is his kingdom, and suffices him. The present is his eternity, and delights him. He has nothing to prove, since he has no appearances to keep up, and nothing to seek, since everything is before him. What is more simple than simplicity? What lighter?It is the virtue of wise men and the wisdom of saints."

To Ricard, being free means being able to follow the path of inner transformation, to overcome not only external adversity, but also our innermost enemies: laziness, lack of focus and the habit that constantly distracts us from or defers spiritual practice. Unlike sensual pleasures which appear at first attractive but will soon turn into their opposites, the path of spiritual practice may first appear arduous, but with time, will become easier and easier and gradually will "impart a sense of fulfillment that nothing can replace. Sociological researches have found that happiness rises with social involvement and participation in volunteer organizations, the practice of sports or music, membership in leisure clubs and is closely tied to the maintenance and quality of private relationships. And happiness tends to be more pronounced amongst highly energetic people in good physical condition and leisure activities enhance satisfaction especially amongst those who do not work e.g.the retired, those of independent means, in part because people are more in voluntary control of what they do."

Studies have also shown that in America, people watch an average of 3.5 hours a day i.e. one year in every 7! But those who watch a lot are in general less happy! Research has also shown that beyond a relatively low threshold of wealth, the level of satisfaction remains unchanged even as income continues to rise e.g. in America, real income has doubled since 1949 but the number of people who declared themselves "very happy" has dropped slightly! Richard Layard of London School of Economics summarises the situation: "We have more food, more clothes, more cars, bigger houses, more central heating, more foreign holidays, a shorter working week, nice work and above all, better health. Yet we are not happier."  Social scientists have discovered that one the mains sources of people's discontent comes from comparing themselves with others in their family, at their work places and among their acquaintances  

(To be Cont'd)

2012年3月18日 星期日

The Splendor of Russia

Saturdays are usually quite hectic for me because of my commitment for various talks and photographing. But I had a way to give myself a relaxing and often exhilarating evening: a night at the Cultural Centre. I'm seldom disappointed. Gennadi Rozhdestvensky, who needs no introduction,  had come to Hong Kong. He conducted for us a piece he conducted in Chicago more than 30 years ago, Tchaikovsky's Manfred Symphony, composed by this genius from Russia based upon a poem Childe Harold's Pilgrimmage by the romantic poet Lord Byron on his adventures from Eastern Europe to Spain, meeting all kinds of peoples of very different climate, history and customs and personalities.

In the Preface to the piece, Lord Byron said that the character Harold was introduced merely for the sake of giving "some connexion to the piece" and that he is "entirely a child of the imagination" .The piece belongs to the genre of "programme music". In relating his adventures, Tchaikovsky always associated the appearance of Harold with a characteristic motif which is repeated in each of the symphony's four movements. The piece has a rather checkered history. The idea was first suggested to Berlioz, a master of this form, by the Russian critic Vladimor Straso. Berlioz started on it but never finished it. So Strasov approached Mily Balakiev, who finished some skeleton but again didn't finish it. After another 15 years, Balakiev passed his ideas to Tchaikovky who quickly finished in 1855 whilst in an Alpine resort. It's a very colorful piece with a short title for each movement: the first in lento lugubre--moderanto con moto-Andante, is Harold in the Alps, the second  in Vivace cons spirito, "The Fairy of the Alps appears before Manfred through the rainbow of spray from a waterfall, the third in Andante con moto  "Pastorale. The simple, free and peaceful life of the Alpine hunters" and the fourth in Allegro con fuoco "The subterranean palace of Aimanes., Manfred appears in the centre of the orgy. The appearance of the spirit of Astarte who predicts the end of Manfred's earthly life. Manfred's death." It has a very important part for the piano in the piece, something very convenient because Rozhdestvensky arrives with his very accomplished pianist wife Viktoria Posnikova, who also played for us the first piece of the evening, Tchaikovky's Piano Concerto No. 2 in G, Op. 44, a piece seldom heard in Hong Kong. A usual criticism of the piece is that to please his patron, Tchakovsky included a very long section for dialogue between the violin and the cello but Tchaikovsky did make some effort to cause them to interact with the piano towards the end of the movement. There is a long version and a short version of the first movement which when it was first performed in November 1881 in New York drew the comment that its first movement was too long. It has since been revised but the one we had was Tchaikovsky's original long version.

Posnikova is an excellent pianist. A rather substantial lady with an ample figure, she appeared in a long and colorful Russia evening gown which hugs her body and gives an air of lightness. But her play was powerful, passionate and sensitive and drew long applauses.from the audience who was so stunned by her performance that they stopped for a really long while before they started to clap their hands. Rozhdestvensky was an old gentleman who walked slowly and with great dignity upon the stage with his fringe of white hair upon his bald head and his big belly, rather like the old man in Walt Disney's Pinnochio cartoon  He conducted with an apparent ease which only a master can command and drew a wonderful performance from the HKPO. The only complaints my companions had for the evening came from Mr. Chu, who gave me one of his characteristic rueful smiles indicating that it meant his chance for another post-concert evening snacks had been rendered entirely illusory now! It was an excellent concert. I'm really lucky to be able to be a part of it.



2012年3月17日 星期六

週末笑話

响市民腦袋仲係所謂「世紀大辯論」之震盪後,仲未能消化消化在大辯論中爆出之最熱棘棘的「黑材料」嘅時候,有乜嘢好得過來一點兒輕鬆的週末笑話呢?真好,有咁啱得咁「橋」,剛好友人轉來大陸流行的幾則笑話,好開心,唔駛自已四圍揾,所以就一於老實不客氣嘞,嚟個「借花敬佛」。

1   清華人就是專業,今兒在C樓聽見一個女的打電話:“剛開始你把我當氧氣,後來當空氣,再後來當二氧化碳,現在已經把我當一氧化碳了,你什麼意思?!”

 
2. 同濟大學老師:“08級的男同學你們不要著急,你們未來的老婆現在還在中學蹦達著呢……成功人士平均比配偶大12歲,這樣算來你們很多人未來的老婆還在小學一年級蹦達著。所以說現在養的那是別人的老婆∼∼
 
3. 冬天跟同學吃火鍋, 我第一個出來等。見一輛越野車, 就先照著黑色玻璃剔牙, 又擦潤唇膏,再整理頭髮..這時車窗搖下來了, 車裡一張猛男臉,離我超近地說: 小妹, 照完沒? 我們要開車了!
 
4.  一天和男友聊天,說到興起,口水四濺,濺到了他臉上。他本能地用手擦去。
 
     我有點不好意思,但是故意轉移重點,裝作很生氣:“幹嘛?嫌棄我啊??”
 
     他滿臉紳士般的笑容說:“沒,抹勻點!”
 
5. 學校說要體檢,要驗大便, 每一個人都得帶上一點點去。, 有個校友用「周大福」的袋子和盒子裝著. 誰不知走到半路,竟被騎摩托車的賊一手搶走了。
 
6.  某公司職員榮升主管,很快就讓一位女同事懷孕了。小主管已有妻室,要求女方趕緊把孩子打掉,但女同事堅決要生下來,無奈,小主管讓她回西北老家生。

     女同事說,孩子生了怎麼通知你?小主管說:這個容易,孩子出生後,你就寄張明信片給我,在上面寫上 “陝西拉麵到“ 就行了, 以後,我會按時給你們寄生活費。
 
     十個月過後,一天下午,小主管回到家,妻子遞給他一張明信片說,是陝西來的。小主管不動聲色接過明信片。才看一眼就口吐白沫,抽搐暈了過去,妻子       馬上送他去醫院急救。
 
      在急診室,醫生拿過明信片,唸道:陝西拉麵共四碗;兩碗有香腸!兩碗沒有。
 
7.. 昨晚回家時,在路上踩了一條蛇,它反身咬了我一口,但我一點沒事,沒過一會,蛇全身發抖,口吐白沫,轉眼就掛了。我朝它吐了一泡口水,鄙夷對它說:老子從小喝三聚氰胺牛奶、吃吊白塊麵粉、用地溝油炸的油條、蘇丹紅醃的紅心鴨蛋、避孕藥餵大的黃鱔、打激素的雞和灌水的肉,從小還打過假疫苗,我早就百毒不侵,而且比你還毒,你敢咬我,真是找死!

   週末愉快!

2012年3月16日 星期五

From Soul to Self to Annihilation of Self.14

Cont'd

4.     The Buddhist View of the "Soul"

When we talk about the Buddhist view on the human "soul", we need to be very careful because the beliefs of what has been called original Buddhism  (原始佛教)(O-Buddhism) and those of popular Buddhism (民間佛教) ("P-Buddhism") may be quite different.

According to O-Buddhism, what is important is how we live whilst still on earth and it is not important whether there "really" exist what are popularly believed to be the human "body" and the so-called human "soul" and if so, how they may be related. The split between "body" and "soul" is a dualistic view which O-Buddhism does not accept. To the O-Buddhist, in the final analysis, both the so-called "body" and the so-called "soul" are "illusory" in the sense that neither of them is "stable" or "permanent"  as both of them, in so far as they exist, are subject to constant changes. The O-Buddhist beliefs in samsara (輪迴), which was "adopted" by the Buddha from the then current Hindu religious beliefs and later modified by him for strategic reasons to encourage his followers to lead what he regarded as a suffering-free life,  a strategy and a "belief" "adopted" by him merely as a "convenient" or "expedient" way ("方便法") of leading them towards what he regarded as the true way or path through the then current Hindu concept of good or bad "karma" or "karmic energy"( 業). For the sake of making it sound more comprehensible to the ordinary people, who are either unable to or do not bother to understand the fairly abstract principles of O-Buddhism, the "doctrine" of the samsara posits the existence of so-called "good" and "evil", the so-called "heaven"s and "hells", and so-called "karma" and to conform to "popular" beliefs about the existence of so-called "soul/spirit/ghosts", the Buddha worked on the existing beliefs but made suitable modifications and elaborations on them so that they would become more consistent with what he advocated. 

When Buddhism entered China, probably for the same reasons, many Chinese monks infused into Chinese Buddhism popular Chinese beliefs in the existence of "soul" (魂) and "soul-manifestation" (魄) and the need of ancestral worship (拜祖) as a convenient method of inducting them into true Buddhist beliefs. In doing so, they were merely following in the footsteps of the Buddha who always tailored his teachings according to the ability of the relevant disciples and followers to comprehend what he was teaching (因才施教) and fitted his teaching to the relevant time and circumstances (因時濟宜).

In O-Buddhism, the way to "transcend" the mundane pleasures, joys, pains, suffering and miseries of this world and hence reach "nirvana/nibbana", a state of relatively permanent and stable "peace" and "calm" is to cease to make any dualistic distinction between conventional dualistic pairs, between life on earth and the so-called "next life" in the otherwise endless so-called cycle or "reincarnation" "as if" the so-called "spirit/soul" were the "owner" of  the relevant "bodies" the way we "own" or "change" our houses or clothes in which the relevant "spirit/soul" occupies for the time being. Some of the Chinese monks e.g  Master Wai Yuan (慧遠 (CE 334~416)of Lushan (廬山) in the Eastern Chun (東晉) Dynasty adapted the then Buddhist doctrine with the traditional Chinese concepts of the 5 elements (五行) by comparing the 'soul/spirit" which he thought would never cease to exist to "fire"(火) and the impermanent  "body" to "tree/wood" (木) such that during samsara, a "soul/spirit" will burn in and thus give life to one "body" after another in a succession "reincarnations" or trans-migration of the "soul/spirit" until it attains nirvana/nibbana. Thus belief in the existence of some kind of "soul" is only confined to the followers of P-Buddhism. In fact, he caused a controversial storm of debates on whether the spirit is mortal or immortal (神滅不滅論爭).

When the great Buddha was asked whether man has a "soul/spirit" and "heaven/hell",  he refused to make a commitment one way or another. (無記). His attitude can be compared to that of Confucius who, when asked about what would happen to man after death, replied " if we don't know about life, how can we be expected to know about death" (未知生, 焉知死) and advised his disciples to respect the "ghosts/spirits" but distance themselves from them. (敬鬼神而遠之).

Thus according to O-Buddhism, if a Buddhist firmly believes in the permanence of an indestructible "soul/spirit", he cannot be considered a right thinking Buddhist because according to the Buddhist doctrine of "Eight right paths" (八正道), an important right path is "right belief" (正信).  To the right-thinking and right-believing Buddhist, there is only what they call "consciousness/awareness" (識) i.e. the activity of the "mind" and the purpose and aim of Buddhist practice is to transform troubled consciousness into pure wisdom (轉煩悔惱識成清淨智). When a Buddhist attains this, then he can be liberated from his troubles, his worries, his fears, his anger, his greed, his desires, his longings, his hopes, his despair, his pains, his suffering, his emotional ups and downs and live in a way which "transcends" even the boundaries between life and death. 

(To be cont'd)

2012年3月15日 星期四

From Soul to Self to Annihilation of Self.13

Cont'd

3  The Chinese Taoist View of the "Soul"

According to Chinese tradition, there are two related concepts concerning the human spirit: what may be called his "soul" (魂) and his "soul manifestations" (魄). Per the explanation of Chan's Book of Li (陳氏禮記), the soul is the spirit of yang or sun or the positive (陽之靈) and the highest expression of Chi (氣之英). "Chi" (氣) according to the Taoist is the principle of life because life is conceived of as the result of the concentration or the accumulation of Chi to a point (生, 氣之聚) and "soul manifestation" (魄)  is the spirit of the Yin or the negative (陰之靈) and the essence of the body (體之精). According to Sung scholar Wang Min Chai (黃勉齋), the "soul" is concerned with actively guiding and operating, the "soul manifestation" is concerned with passively receiving (魂主經營, 魄玄受納). Therefore, each human being only has one "soul" and its expression or manifestation in the body.

But according to a Northern Sung  (北宋) Taoist text "Yun Ka Chi Chen"(  雲笈七籤 ) Vol. 54 edited by Chang Chun Fang (張君房) a book consisting of a total of 122 volumes of all important Taoist texts written prior to 1017 in about 1.7 million words and forming a part of the Taoist Collection (道藏), a man has 3 "souls" and 7 "soul manifestations" (三魂七魄). The three "souls" are called respectively "the light of the embryo" (胎光), supposed to be the chi of the primordial yang or the sun (太清陽和之氣) "the crisp spirit" (爽靈), supposed to be the variation of the chi of the yin or the dark (陰氣之變) and "essence of the dark" (幽精), supposed to be the leftovers or mixes of various types of chi of the yin or the dark (陰氣之雜). . The seven "soul manifestations" are respective called 1. dog corpse (屍狗) 2. lurking arrow (伏矢) 3. yin of the bird (雀陰) 4. swallowed thief (吞賊) 5. negative toxin (非毒) 6. eliminating dirt (除穢) 7. stinking lungs (臭肺) and are considered to the spirit of dirt or pollution in the human body. According to Taoist Religious theory, it is believed that after a person dies, then he would lose of these 7 "soul manifestation" each week so that after 49 days or 7 weeks, all his "soul manifestations" will be gone or completely dissipated.  When he dies, one of man's soul will stay in hell (hall of the earth) ( 地府) , one of his souls will stay at the tomb (墓地) or grave and one will stay at the ancestral tablet. (祖先牌位). Thus whilst the "soul" will exist forever, the "soul manifestation(s)" is/are tied to the human body and will come and go with it.

However, according to 許衡山, a contemporary, the three "souls" are 1.  "spiritual soul"  (靈魂)
or heavenly soul (天魂) or "master soul" (主魂), the seat of "conscience"   2. "conscious soul" ( 覺魂)
or "earthly soul) (地魂)  or "seeing soul" (視魂)  which he thinks of as the monitor of the "master soul"  normally involved in right and wrong and  3. "life soul" (生魂)
or "human soul" (人魂) or "phenomenal soul" (象魂)  and the seven "soul manifestations are respectively: 1. joy(喜) 2. anger (怒), 3 sorrow (哀) 4. fear or anxiety (懼 )5 affection or love (愛) 6. hatred or disgust or distaste (惡) 7. desire or longing (慾). Therefore the three "souls" are concerned with the human spirit whilst the seven "soul manifestations" are concerned with the matter and the human body.and when a man dies, his "heavenly soul" will report to heaven, his "earthly soul" will report to the hall of the dead or hell  because that's where it will be decided if a man will go to heaven or will return to earth according to Buddhist theory of the samsara and his "human soul" will return to his grave and his ancestral tablet because a man got his body from his ancestors.

Who is right? Who is wrong? Which version is true? Which version is false? Does it matter?

(To be cont'd)

2012年3月14日 星期三

From Soul to Self to Annihilation of Self.12

Cont'd

2. Bahai's view of the Soul

The Bahai faith is a little known religious faith but then they still got between 5 or 6 million adherents spread over 200 countries. They are a monotheistic religion worshipping the same God as the Christians and the Muslims. Founded in 19th century Persia, now Iran, they believe that God has revealed himself through a series of prophets including Buddha, Abraham, Jesus and Muhammad with Báb Bahá'ulláh as its latest prophet. Believing in the unity of God, of religion and of mankind, they think that God is too great to be fully understood through one religion alone.

To the Bahais, all human beings have a "rational soul" and a duty which enables them to recognize God's creative power and status and how man is related to him through his messengers, which will come once every thousand year or so in times of turmoil and uncertainty, to follow his teachings of regular prayers and spiritual practice so that our "soul" becomes closer to God. They believe that before being born, we have no "soul" and that it is the
destiny of our "soul" to evolve away from materialism towards God. Like the Christians, they believe that when a man dies, his "soul" will pass on to the next world where he will be judged but to them, heaven and hell are not "physical places" of reward or punishment after death, only "spiritual states" of our distance or nearness to God.

Bahais believe that all human beings are equal and that hierarchies based on race, culture, nationalism, caste, social class and gender are artificial impediments to human solidarity. They think that all men are free to explore their faith in their own way in an ordinary daily life setting and do not believe that they need any professional priests. In fact they forbid a mendicant and ascetic lifestyle. However, they do believe that we must use our work, done in a spirit of service, as our form of worship and prayer to our creator God. They have suffered much persecution in Islamic countries.

I find that the Bahai's views about what "heaven" and "hell" are are very close to what I think. My only difference with them is that I believe that we do not experience "heaven" and "hell" only "after" death. To me, we do not have to wait for the arrival of the "kingdom of heaven" or for that matter, "hell" until the day of our death. I believe that every time we think, every time we feel, every time we act in a way contrary the principle of love preached by Moses, Jesus or Muhammad, the principle of compassion preached by Buddha, the principle of "benevolence"(仁) preached by the Confucians, the principle of Tao (道) preached by the Taoists, the principle of the universal good preached by the Hindus, we are already experiencing "hell" ( which is just the opposite of "heaven") and that the concepts of "heaven" and "hell" are merely metaphors of how far we have strayed from the path towards "God" or the Tao.

Like the Bahai, I believe that  the human "soul" is just another "metaphor" to describe the "kind" of flesh and blood person that we "were/are/can be" i.e. the totality of all that we "were/are/may be", all that we "think", all that we "feel", all that we "do" to our "body" and to other "people". and to the "external physical universe" in the past, at present and in future until the moment of our death in this world. But unlike Bahais, I don't believe that our "soul" is something different from our "personality" and our "moral biography". nor that our souls will be judged by an entity called "God" after death. I believe that we are already constantly "judged" by the standards of human decency even in this life but that such standards are merely internalized social values we have adopted for ourselves based on criteria in the societies and cultures in which we happen to live and that we simply do not know for certain if there is "another world" after death. Many people claim to have "seen" another world and to have "seen" "spirits" or "souls" or various "gods" or even "the Buddha" or "God" or even that they have "heard" or "talked" with such "entities" and many people claim that they "know" that there is another world before we come into this world and after we shall be gone. To me, their "claims" remain just that: subjective "claims" and "beliefs". I have yet to be convinced of the "truth" of their claims. Whenever they encounter phenomena which they cannot explain by the principles of present day science or "common sense" and very often even when such phenomena can be perfectly explained by the application of the known principles of present day science (but are still unknown to them owing to the lack of the necessary educational opportunities available to them) without resort to "supernatural" principles, they immediately jump to the conclusion that it must be a "miracle" or must be the work of their "God" or their "boddhisattvas" or other gods that they worship or "spirits" or "ghosts"  because they have offered the required "sacrifices" to such entities, through their "intermediaries", the priests, the monks, who have little hesitation to "cash" in on the "sale" or euphemistically called their "contribution" or "donations" or "gifts" towards the expenses of the requisite "offerings" in the form of flowers, fruits, animals, candles, joss sticks and other so-called "ritual" paraphernalia and for their intercessory "services" which they agree to perform on their behalves out of their "sympathy" for the plights of the relevant faithfuls or believers..

(To be cont'd)