Saturday, February 24, 2007

Pictures of Piracy

My friend Abdo recently gave me the idea for a new feature on this blog, movie reviews! Whereas Abdo tends to write the occasional "Cinema of the Sky" email, reviewing the movies he's seen while jetting around the world in business and first class while simultaneously waging the war against poverty, the films we watch are mostly seen in the comfort of our own home on DVDs that are sold under questionable legal conditions, on the streets and in the markets of Beijing.

For the most part, we try to buy only those DVDs that were not filmed surreptitiously in the cinemas of the world, since we get distracted by the shaky picture when the cameraman has been overcome by a sneezing fit, or by people walking across the screen when going to the bathroom. Still, occasionally we cannot wait the 2-3 weeks that it usually takes before a 'real' DVD appears on the market. However, even when we think we've waited long enough we are sometimes surprised with the occasional camcorder copy, such as the recent movie I watched that began with an announcement--in Russian--reminding the audience that the use of video recording devices is prohibited and calling upon audience members to turn in anyone seen using one in the theatre.

Anyway, here are my first set of reviews.

The Last King of Scotland. I had heard about this movie long before we saw it on the shelves in our DVD store, and snatched it up as soon as it became available (I had not realized that it was up for an Oscar--Oscar promotional DVDs are a great source of material for the Chinese DVD pirate, as the crawl on the bottom of the screen reading "For Your Consideration--Property of 20th Century Fox (or whoever) for promotional purposes only" made clear). The story has nothing to do with Scotland, much less its kings, but rather is the story of the rise of Idi Amin of Uganda, told from the perspective of a naive and idealistic young Scottish doctor who moves to Uganda to help the people, only to suddenly become the president's personal physician. Forest Whittaker gives an excellent performance, his bizarre eyes adding to the sense that this president is not alright. Also, Mr Tumnus from the Chronicles of Narnia does a great job as the stupid Scotsman.

Children of Men. We had never heard of this movie when we bought it, but figured with Michael Caine (my dinner companion at George Harrison's house some time ago--but that's another story) and Clive Owen, and directed by Alfonso Cuaron, it should be pretty good. It's a really bleak story about a future world where no one has given birth in 18 years (as we learn when, early in the film, the world's youngest person, an 18-year old, commits suicide). Clive Owen is charged with escorting an inexplicably pregnant woman to safety, in a story way too complicated to get into. Despite the bleakness of the landscape, the movie was very entertaining, and extremely well acted.

The Good German. Good friends George Clooney and Matt Damon both came out with historical movies with the word "good" in their titles at about the same time. This is the Clooney vehicle, in which he plays a US journalist sent to cover the Potsdam Conference in post-war Germany. Cate Blanchett plays a femme fatale and Toby Maguire strives valiantly to ditch his goody-two-shoes Peter Parker image, but the story, with all its twists and conspiracies is virtually impossible to follow and George just does not really pull it off. Still, since it's in black and white, I suppose it must be good.

The Prestige. I know Abdo does not understand why adults might be interested in magic, and I certainly don't understand why there is a sudden spate of films concerned with the subject, but this one was directed by Christopher Nolan (who also directed Memento and Batman Returns) and stars Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman and my old friend Michael Caine. An amazingly convoluted story with impossible to believe twists and plot devices, the story is oddly fun to watch, especially the bits concerned with Nikola Tesla (played by David Bowie, of all people) and his competition with the nefarious Thomas Edison (who is an unseen heavy in this film). I happened to see this film on a recent flight, too, and found things in it on the second viewing that I missed in the first, though I would not recommend it to everyone.

Borat. As soon as I heard of this film I knew I had to see it, and I waited and waited for the DVD to appear in Beijing, fearing that the authorities might ban it to avoid a diplomatic skirmish with neighboring Kazakhstan, which bristled at the film's protagonist, a supposed journalist for Kazakh National TV. But eventually it appeared, and despite the assurances that the audio would all be in Russian (it wasn't) we bought a copy. Sure enough, as expected, there were some scenes that were among the funniest things I have ever seen, while others were so disgusting that the two of us had to avert our eyes. More of an exposure of the stupidity and cultural insensitivity of some Americans than an insult to Kazakhstan (though there is an element of that), the movie could easily have been cut to half its length without losing anything (and probably gaining a lot). If you happen to be flying on KazAir and it's on the big screen, you could find worse ways of spending your time than watching it, but don't bother going to the cinema for it.

The Holiday. Friends of ours asked me to bring this DVD back from China for them, so the day before I left for the US I bought two copies--one for them, and one for us, and decided to watch it that evening. Unfortunately, one copy would not play at all on our DVD player, and the other one was so badly recorded that the sound was virtually unintelligible and was out of sync with the picture. So we tried to play the first one through my computer (sometimes that works) and at first it worked fine, though in the middle of the story the audio suddenly changed from English to German and never switched back. I think this should not have mattered, though, since it was patently obvious where this movie was going from the first few moments--Kate Winslet and Cameron Diaz play insecure women with bad relationships in England and L.A., respectively, who incongruously wind up swapping houses for a brief holiday to get away from it all. Both end up meeting men in the other person's life and (presumably) fall in love and live happily ever after--Cameron with Jude Law and Kate with Jack Black (Cameron clearly gets the better end of this deal). Pure and utter fluff, destined to be playing soon in an airplane near you.

Let me know if this new feature is of any interest, otherwise I'll return to the normal content of this blog.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Our Dogs Playing

This is not technically related to Beijing, and it's certainly not new (it was filmed in the spring of 2005, I think) but I found this while cleaning out my computer and wanted to share it.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Happy New Year!!

To all my loyal readers, and my disloyal readers, too, a very happy year of the Golden Pig! Wan shi ru yi, gong xi fa cai and all that!

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Beware the Pig

Chinese New Year is on February 18 this year, and as you can imagine Beijing is festooned with decorations to mark the holiday. However, despite the fact that it is about to be the year of the golden pig, you would be hard pressed to find any piggery imagery in any of the decorations. This is odd, since for the current year of the dog, despite the country's ambivalent attitude to man's best friend, there were oodles of poodles (and other breeds) displayed on walls, calendars, and other new year paraphernalia.

The reason for this paucity of porcity? Apparently the government is afraid of offending Muslims, who as we all know do not partake of any pork (perhaps they also don't want to offend Jews?). I wonder whether there was a similar concern 12 years ago, during the last year of the pig, but somehow I doubt it. And don't for a second assume that there will be any effort to ban the consumption of pork during the holiday, since it's one thing to deny Chinese the image of pigs on their walls, and quite another to deny them the taste of pork in their stomachs.

Now that I'm in the US again, it seems that all the pig-themed New Years symbols that were produced before the ban was announced must have been diverted to the export market, since pretty much every Chinese New Year decoration I have seen here has had a pig in it somewhere!

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Chinglish Endangered?

My friend Dongmei sent me an article from the Wall Street Journal about plans by the Beijing city fathers to replace the rather amusing English that peppers the street with grammatical, logical English signage. This is a bit of a shame, since one of the things that livens the day here is seeing a sign like the ones pictured

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

A Speaking Engagement

I am currently in Shanghai, attending a conference in place of the hospital president, who had a conflicting engagement in the US. She was to have presented a paper at the conference on "Cultural Differences" in providing healthcare services, and asked me to give it in her place. I am not a huge fan of standing in front of large audiences and giving papers, especially ones that I did not write, and as my slot approached the butterflies became more and more active in my stomach. However, once the talk got under way, and I saw that people were paying close attention and not playing on their BlackBerries or reading their newspapers, I got into the swing of things (though my mouth still got very very dry and I had to take regular swigs of water). When I was done with the talk, and opened the floor for questions, there erupted a very active discussion, with the participants (most having come from Europe and North America to learn about opportunities in healthcare in China) asking loads of questions about how to navigate the cultural chasm between them and the Chinese. I think that, if I had not closed my consulting firm to take on my position at the hospital, I would now have a very large list of new clients...

The remainder of the conference was, frankly, not up the high standards that my talk set, and I think the president will be glad that she did not waste her time to attend. But the hotel they put us up in (the Shangri-La in Shanghai, overlooking the Huangpu River and the colonial architecture of the Bund) was fantastic, with what has to be the best buffet breakfast and dinner I have ever had anywhere. Well worth the hours of anxiety that giving the talk caused me.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Harbin Photos

My internet connection has finally got more or less back to normal, so I have finally been able to upload our photos from Harbin. Here they are.

Nearby Attraction

The store that sold me my lens yesterday has a 15-day exchange policy if the lens is defective, so I thought I should head out today to give it a trial run. We had been planning to visit the nearby Dongyue Miao (东岳庙)for some time, and this seemed like a good excuse to do so. This is a Daoist/Taoist temple, the largest in Northern China apparently, and located only about a 10 minute walk from our apartment. It is quite out of place with all the modern buildings popping up around it, but it's refreshing to see that it has yet to be torn down.

The temple is notable for having niches along the edges where the gods responsible for the 72 'departments' and 16 levels of hell hold court, each with their courtesans or victims (hard to tell which they are) along with spaces for people to hang little tokens seeking those particular gods to help them out with something or another. It was notable that some niches (such as the ones for "accumulating wealth" and "implementing 15 kinds of violent death") are especially popular while others ("pity and sympathy") were absolutely bare.

The temple was a nice little diversion for a morning, and made for nice pictures. Oh, and the lens appears to be fine. Judge for yourself by looking at the pictures yourself here.


For those of you who are not Chinese speakers (or readers), the characters in the header read "Chai Na" and mean something like "tear that down". "Chai na" sounds a lot like "China" and I am hardly the first person to think that it might be a more apt name for this country than the kind of egocentric “中国” (Middle Country). Since moving to Beijing in August we have noticed a lot of buildings in our area suddenly be marked with the "拆" character, indicating that it is slated to be torn down. The area right behind our housing complex, where our favorite restaurant and the little convenience store we have ironically nicknamed "Wegman's" are located, was 拆ed recently (leaving the restaurant untouched and rendering Wegman's without any neighbors) and there are a couple of other buildings in the vicinity that recently were marked for 拆ing.

Yesterday my sometime officemate Carl took J2 and me to a camera market in the far western reaches of Beijing called Wukesong for me to look at (and buy) a lens. The walk from the metro was pretty long, and rather windy, and J2 and I could not help noticing that there did not seem to be any likely candidates for a camera market on the horizon, and there was a lot of new construction. As we walked further and further, Carl finally let on that he had not been to this place in over a year, so there was a good chance that it had been 拆ed. But we pressed on and in the end the place was still there and we found the shop that we were looking for and I even got my lens. But the lesson is: never assume that someplace you went to once before is still there in this city that is constantly rebuilding itself.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

The Story of my Dry Cleaner

When we moved into our apartment here in Beijing we were very pleased to find that there was a Spanish-invested cleaner just at the front gate, making it far less inconvenient than I expected to get my suits and things cleaned. When we first went there we learned that you could get a discount if you deposit a certain amount of money with them; since we had no idea how much we'd actually end up using them, we started off with the lowest amount possible, a Y700 deposit (just under $100), which would entitle us to a 20% discount on all our cleaning.

Soon after we signed up with them, however, we learned that our ayi did a better job with cleaning shirts, and without having to lug the shirts all the way to the entrance of our complex, so we limited our use of the cleaner to suits, trousers and other things that needed to be dry cleaned. As a result, our deposit was only being depleted very slowly, but I did not really care.

A few weeks before New Year, I went to get some clothes cleaned, only to be told that they would be closing temporarily for renovation, and would reopen in January. I thought it was a bit inconvenient, but the place was pretty grotty so I figured it would be a change for the better. The other day, I noticed that the cleaning shop had reopened, and had switched places with a small convenience store that used to be in the anteroom of the shop (now the cleaner occupies the larger space, and the cleaner is in the front). I asked James to go drop off some pants for me yesterday, and got a call from him, saying that they would no longer honor our card. Several phone calls later I learned that the cleaner is no longer associated with that Spanish company and that our card was no longer valid. However, when I phoned the Spanish company itself, they said they had not heard about this turn of events, and would have to investigate.

In the meantime, I have no idea whether I will get my deposit back, nor how much is left on our card. My colleagues at work found the whole conversation I was having on the phone very amusing, especially when one guy I phoned (who turned out to have been a wrong number) phoned me back, asking why I had phoned him and, when he found out I was a foreigner, started to ask me all sorts of questions about where I was from, how long I've been studying Chinese, etc. Keep your fingers crossed that this reaches a happy conclusion eventually.