Incheon-Beijing Day 1

The morning of our trip started with DSC00123tea and apprehension. A quick shower, brekkie and last minute triple checks. We have been waiting for this trip for months, even years, and now it’s here I don’t really want to go. Why are we even going? I have a good job here in Korea, Youngja’s doing well at work and we’ve decided to pack it all in and live in sweat house dormitories, showering in toilets and sharing sleep patterns with strangers.  I know the dignified reason for travel: it broadens the mind, you experience cultures out of your comfort zone and realise how small and big this world really is. It’s an incredibly fortunate situation to find yourself being able to get out there and have a jolly good look around.

Though, one shouldn’t forget that travelling is hard. You’re constantly on the move, from plane to bus to subway to whatever next. You flitter and flutter about more than a whippet in heat. If you’re not moving you’re preparing to move, and for a man who has declined whole careers for an extra hour in bed this can be seen as a tricky spot to place oneself.

We said goodbye to Youngja’s mum and set off. Youngja gave her little hug and a pat on the back and tried to make the best of it. They’re a sturdy bunch at the in-laws and public displays of affection are few and very far between. After we were dropped off I asked “How was your dad?” “He was quite upset” the wife told. This came as a surprise, to the untrained eye he seemed his usual self. “He seemed okay to me” I put forth. “He couldn’t look at me.” She confessed, through her blues.

At the airport we met a tiny Chinese man who was very jovial and proceeded to push in front of everyone and get to the front in record time.

“How did he manage that?” Asked the wife.

“Maybe everyone thought he was looking for his mummy.”

DSC00135The way the Chinese do this still mystifies me. As an Englishman, the worry of being thought negatively by strangers is strong and keeping up appearances is an art unto itself. I do find it impressive how the Chinese seem to complete not give any sort of shit to how they would be perceived. When in Rome…
After the usual nonsense at immigration we finally got on the plane and after a short delay we were off.

A friend of mine who travelled for two years explained before I left, “When I went away, I was ready to travel every day. A different experience, a different town, never let the place I’m in keep me.” As he continued I sensed a ‘but’. “I couldn’t do it. Travelling is the hardest thing you’ll do. After some time I found the perfect ingredient for my travel. 5-2. Five days travelling and two off. Reading, listening to music or (mostly) just lying down and/or sleeping”

I was looking forward to Beijing. As much as I admire democracy and see the point of DSC00155capitalism, a good communist state sounded like a nice change. Now, comrades, please understand, it wasn’t as if I was hoping for ‘The Internationale’ to be bursting through the airport tannoys, I read the news and I know that the reds are on the way out. But blow me over with a desk fan if I wasn’t shocked at the rampant commercialism of the place. Apple, Cartier, Prada, you couldn’t move for a pretty girl selling perfume on a street sign. I knew it was coming one day but I wished they could have waited till I left.

After fighting our way through baggage claim we finally got ours and hopped it outside to get a bus. Why we decided on a bus instead of the train is beyond me. I hate buses. Loathe the things. Dirty, slow, unreliable lumps of metal. But for whatever reason we trusted this one would get us there in one piece. We asked the lady at the ticket office which bus goes closest to Wangfujing, where our hostel was located. She said, without a thought “Number 7, very very very close. 40 minutes.” She actually said very three times. I thought “Golly me, it must be a girl’s stone’s throw from our hostel!”

After the bus driver finally dropped us off, two hours and a minor side collision later (we were told it would take 45 minutes at the most), there didn’t seem to be much in the way of hostels about. “Maybe it’s a man’s stone’s throw”? I reasoned. The wife promptly asked a girl waiting for a bus where Wangfujing would be and how long the walk is.

“Walk?” She said, as if a looney had asked to the way to Belgium on foot.

“Yes. It’s not far, is it?”

“Not far, no” She said.

“Oh, good!” I countered.

“No. It’s far”

“But, you said it’s not far”.

“I said ‘not far no.’ It’s far.”

While my head throbbed, the wife asked how far it is.

“One hour walk. Subway here. Take subway.”

She was in fact very friendly and directed us the way to go on foot anyway. It involved a lot of ‘straights’, ‘lefts’ and indeed ‘rights’, with a couple of okey kokeys thrown in for good measure. We promptly decided on the subway.

By the time we worked out how to use the ticket machine and navigated our way across town, it was around 6pm and would be getting dark soon.  We finally found the Hostel, the provocatively titled ‘Feel Inn’ up some corner street. The hostel’s exterior resembled a funky bar, full of neon and statues of Chineesy things. The inside proved to be less funky. I didn’t feel like feeling anything inn there at all. We checked in but couldn’t go to our room yet because it was being cleaned to we spent an irritable half hour in the lobby.

“We’ve wasted the whole day” Youngja declared.

My beautiful wife is many things, perceptive being one. I couldn’t disagree.

“Let’s just hope the room is okay” I hoped.

“It’s not.”

“How do you know?”

“Because we paid 4 pounds for the night.”

The old optimism took a nose dive and no sooner were we in our room.

Seeing the state of the world we live in it seems trivial to complain about such things as a bad room in Beijing. This will not stop me. It was God awful. It looked like a place you would be detained in if you were caught robbing.

“Didn’t they say they were cleaning it? Is that what passes for sarcasm in China?” I asked YJ, after the owner left and I had complimented the room.

“It could be worse.” YJ supposed.

“I guess so. There are four beds and we’re the only ones here. With any luck we’ll have the place to ours…”

“Hello” Said our new roommate.

“Where are you from?”

After the usual pleasantries we had a new friend. Her name was Chen and she was from Taiwan. She was stopping over in Beijing for the night on the way to Sweden. She had a 24 hour layover and decided to see the town instead of staying at the airport.

“Have you been here before?” I asked.

“Yes, three times.”

“You stayed in this place three times?”

“No no, I’ve been to Beijing three times. I never go here.”

“Yes. I doubt this place sees many repeat offenders.”

“What does that mean” She wondered.

“Nothing.” Said YJ “What do you recommend we do in Beijing?”

“Go to the Forbidden City.” She suggested. “It’s very beautiful and very, er, big.”

We stored this for another day and made our way outside for some food.

Wangfujing is one of the big shopping DSC00195districts in Beijing.  Designer brands and KFC abounds and I knew my hopes for a communist haven were dashed. In Wangfujing there are also street stalls selling all manner of food, though one mustn’t forget that the line between ‘food’ and ‘pest’ is no finer than in Beijing. The vendors were unsurprisingly very pushy.

“YouTrySnakeNowICookYouGiveMeMoneyNow!”

“I don’t want to eat a snake.” I told her.

“I cook now! Why you no say?” She frothed, followed by a tidal wave of what must surely have been the Mandarin for “Not a problem, Sir! Have tons of fun in my fair country!”

Youngja decided on some stir fried noodles and was fleeced into paying 3 pounds for them. An event which to this day, shakes her to the core. Youngja is known as an expert haggler and I’m not sure she’ll ever get over it. For the rest of our trip, whatever we bought she compared it to the noodles.

“This bus trip is 5 times cheaper than those noodles.” She sobbed, the next day. “We could go over the whole of Beijing and still have enough for a Coke with the money we spent yesterday on those noodles.”

“Let it go sweetheart, it was 3 pounds.”

“I’ll never let it go.”

I decided to eat somewhere else, fancying some fried rice or pig on a stick at another market. YJ was still reeling from the 300 pence spent so she said the next meal would be my choice.

“Okay, you can eat whatever you want. Whenever you see something just let me….MacDonalds! I really want some nuggets, let’s get nuggets!” I am not adverse to a cheese burger but McNuggets was not what I had in mind when I thought of my first dinner in Beijing. Good fries, though.

DSC00236We trudged around Wangfujing a bit more, finding another market with wriggling scorpions and spiders for sale. After this, the thought of dessert inexplicably left me and we decided to head home.

“Don’t forget to set alarms. We need to be up early tomorrow to go to the Great Wall.” YJ reminded.

We are heavy sleepers and a solitary alarm doesn’t cut it. We generally have 5 each. We set the alarms between 6 and 6:30am and sank, fully clothed, into slumber.

Review – Castaway on the Moon

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Castaway on the Moon (김씨 표류기)

Lee Hae-jun

2009, South Korea

A man heavily in debt decides to kill himself by jumping of a bridge in Seoul, only to fail and become stranded on an island in the middle of the river cutting through the South Korean capital. His inability to swim sinks his chances of escape and he resolves to stay alive. As the weeks and months pass he is initially unaware that over the river from an apartment window, an eccentric recluse is watching him, until she decides to send him a letter.

There are some films which I put into a chart that I keep in my head. The chart is colour-coded and properly indexed. The name of the chart is ‘The Kooky Calculator’. It categorises and critiques movies on; you guessed it, their kookiness. There are three main categories on The Kooky Calculator: the ‘too kooky’, the ‘suitably kooky’ and the ‘king kooky’. The ‘too kooky’ includes “Be Kind, Rewind”, “The Science of Sleep” and Zooey Deschanel: some of them good movies with wonderful scenes but lose themselves inside their own eccentricities.  ‘Suitably Kooky’ have amongst them gems such as “Adaptation” and “Little Miss Sunshine”, good pictures with great ideas but with just too much kooky for it to be a classic. ‘King Kookies’ is where only the best can sit. Films that toed the line of kookiness but still left me emotionally involved and thoroughly entertained. ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’ is there, as is ‘Sideways’ and ‘Welcome to Dongmakol’, and now, so is ‘Castaway on the Moon’.

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Review – The Invention of Lying

55256256-1254725530-invention_of_lying_1The Invention of Lying

Ricky Gervais & Matthew Robinson

2009, USA

In an alternate universe where the human race is incapable of lying, a lonely writer stumbles upon the ability and quickly becomes the most powerful man alive.

A concept movie has two jobs: make the concept interesting and maintain the interest to the end. The first job is far easier than the second. I’m sure I could think off the top of my head a good concept for a film…

Henry VIII is deep into the business of executing his fifth wife when a time hole suddenly sucks him to the year 2145 where a sub species of humans are preparing to overthrow the British Royal Family, the last monarchy surviving in the war ravaged future. The royals have spent far too much time drinking tea and waving and have simply forgotten how to command anything other than extra portions at dessert, so it’s up to Uncle Henry to pull them together and defeat these mutant republicans using old school tactics.

I did it. The concept of my film (let’s call it ‘Tudor Vengeance’) is, I think, pretty wonderful, but would it stand up for at least 90 minutes like ‘Planet of The Apes’ or ‘Groundhog Day’ did? Probably (and sadly) not.

Such is the problem with ‘The Invention of Lying’. It catches your imagination but the scenario and the jokes don’t live up to the premise. It starts with a voice over of Ricky Gervais, not Mark Bellison the protagonist played by Ricky Gervais but Ricky Gervais himself, talking as only Ricky Gervais does. I thought it was the audio commentary until it stopped and I realised it was just a bad idea. The film is crammed full of cameos: everyone from Edward Norton as a police officer with a German porn star moustache to Phillip Seymour Hoffman as a simple minded bartender. What is the point of these cameos? The two reasons that they exist seem to be for the actors to say they like Ricky Gervais and to make the audience forget what they are watching isn’t very good. Louis C.K., one of the best and smartest comedians working today, is wasted in a dumb role. His main responsibility seems to be shrugging.

It’s not terrible. It has its fun moments: Jennifer Garner is extremely watchable: something about her admitting to just being interrupted while masturbating is quite endearing, and Gervais holds it together as best he can, but it’s  flimsy and shot incredibly badly. Here’s hoping ‘Tudor Vengeance’ fares better.

Review – Into the Abyss

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Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, a Tale of Life

Werner Herzog

2011, USA, UK, Germany

A documentary about two men convicted of a triple murder in Texas and the aftermath of the event. One of the two men, Michael Perry, received the death penalty, while the other, Jason Burkett, received life in prison. The film explores the men’s lives and the various individuals connected to them and the crime.

One could easily make a case that Werner Herzog has only ever made one film. Or more precisely, dozens of films made over and over again. Over countless features and documentaries he has lost us in the jungle, taken us to the ends of the Earth and to the darkness of the solar system. He has captivated us with monsters, killers, lunatics, and dwarfs. All his efforts are singular and collective, and focused on the incredible vastness, beauty and incomprehensibility of the human spirit. In his documentary ‘Into the Abyss’ he details a crime that can be seen as nothing but worthless: two young boys want to steal a car from a friend’s house but learn that his mother is inside. They decide that it would be much easier to simply kill this woman and take the car.

Just like that.

They then realise that the gated community from where they took the car has locked gates and an electronic key is needed. It is around this time that their acquaintance returns with a friend and they succeed in luring them into the woods and killing them both.

Just like that.

The simplicity and utter senselessness of the murder is in many ways a gift to Herzog because he doesn’t want to make a whodunit, nor is it an issue film, Herzog is no preacher, he is an artist and he uses the details of the murder, the childhood of these boys, the environment in which they lived and the feelings of all the people involved to create an amalgam of emptiness.

There are some narrative problems: the version of events and names of the killers and victims are declared swiftly, which made me a little confused as to who did what and who was whom, there are also some interviews that feel too rushed, though equally it’s a credit to Herzog that he got so much, because the 100 minute documentary was taken from roughly four hours of film. Such is the wonder of Werner Herzog that he can get such rich material form so little time. The man asks questions that only he would think of, always slightly left of your average. His first interview involves a reverend who stays with the prisoners while they are put to death and it is a master class in getting from an interviewer exactly what you want. Any other person would have left that interview with nothing but Herzog and his strange way of looking at people found an ecstatic truth. He also has a voice that I could listen to all day.

‘Into the Abyss’ could not be a more succinct name, for the abyss is there in every eye in the film. The murderers, the victims, the families and the collaborators stare deeply into their own darkness and it seems to stare back at them.

Review – Project Nim

project_nim-419000045-largeProject Nim

James Marsh

2011, USA

‘Project Nim’ was a scientific project undertaken in the 1970’s which hoped to develop a greater degree of communication between humans and a chimpanzee. The documentary examines the life of Nim, how he adapted to the myriad environments he encountered and ultimately what became of him.

Nim’s full name ‘Nim Chinski’ is taken from the noted linguist Noam Chomski, though linguistics takes a back seat for most of the film. Though it is true that throughout, Nim’s progress at sign language is monitored, the heart of the story is a morality tale with a great array of characters. After Nim is forcefully removed from his mother he is sent to a middle class hippy who, with orders to treat him like a member of the family, breast feeds and lets him run riot around the house. How or why this woman was chosen is unclear, though we do discover that she and the leader of the project previously had a relationship. After the project manager decides that Nim living in a house with extremely liberal attitudes may not be conducive to the ideal scientific results he moves Nim into a facility and hires a college student (with whom he also has a relationship) to teach him sign language. More characters come and go and Nim is moved around at everyone’s pleasure. It seems bizarre that this project isn’t examined and scrutinised by anyone apart from this horny project manager, bringing its validity into question.

Marsh’s previous documentary, the utterly absorbing ‘Man on Wire’ had at its heart the character of Philippe Petite, an eccentric, French tightrope walker to guide it, Project Nim has a chimpanzee who can use sign language and has a tendency to bite. As cute as Nim is he isn’t much of a conversationalist so his story is shown through archive footage and by the men and women that cared for him. What the film is actually interested in is to use the tale of Nim to highlight the struggle and failure of the human race’s understanding of the natural world, of each other and our primordial cousins. When we look at Nim what we really see is ourselves and our failure to understand who we are.

Review – The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters

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The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters

Seth Gordon

2007, USA

A Documentary following Steve Weibe, a high school science teacher trying to break the world record ‘Donkey Kong’ score, held by veteran gamer Billy Mitchell.

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James Joyce – The Dead

JoyceLILY, the caretaker’s daughter, was literally run off her feet. Hardly had she brought one gentleman into the little pantry behind the office on the ground floor and helped him off with his overcoat than the wheezy hall-door bell clanged again and she had to scamper along the bare hallway to let in another guest. It was well for her she had not to attend to the ladies also. But Miss Kate and Miss Julia had thought of that and had converted the bathroom upstairs into a ladies’ dressing-room. Miss Kate and Miss Julia were there, gossiping and laughing and fussing, walking after each other to the head of the stairs, peering down over the banisters and calling down to Lily to ask her who had come.

It was always a great affair, the Misses Morkan’s annual dance. Everybody who knew them came to it, members of the family, old friends of the family, the members of Julia’s choir, any of Kate’s pupils that were grown up enough, and even some of Mary Jane’s pupils too. Never once had it fallen flat. For years and years it had gone off in splendid style, as long as anyone could remember; ever since Kate and Julia, after the death of their brother Pat, had left the house in Stoney Batter and taken Mary Jane, their only niece, to live with them in the dark, gaunt house on Usher’s Island, the upper part of which they had rented from Mr. Fulham, the corn-factor on the ground floor. That was a good thirty years ago if it was a day. Mary Jane, who was then a little girl in short clothes, was now the main prop of the household, for she had the organ in Haddington Road. She had been through the Academy and gave a pupils’ concert every year in the upper room of the Antient Concert Rooms. Many of her pupils belonged to the better-class families on the Kingstown and Dalkey line. Old as they were, her aunts also did their share. Julia, though she was quite grey, was still the leading soprano in Adam and Eve’s, and Kate, being too feeble to go about much, gave music lessons to beginners on the old square piano in the back room. Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, did housemaid’s work for them. Though their life was modest, they believed in eating well; the best of everything: diamond-bone sirloins, three-shilling tea and the best bottled stout. But Lily seldom made a mistake in the orders, so that she got on well with her three mistresses. They were fussy, that was all. But the only thing they would not stand was back answers.

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Review – Django Unchained

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A slave named Django (Jamie Foxx) in the American south not long before the Civil War is freed by a German bounty hunter, Dr. King Shultz (Christoph Waltz) to assist him in tracking down three men. Through their journey, they become friends and strike up a partnership. Django confides in Shultz that he is married and will track down his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). Shultz, enamored with the fact that Django’s wife has a German name and speaks his native tongue agrees to help him find her but they soon discover that Broomhilda is owned by Calvin Candie (Leonardo Dicaprio), a ruthless plantation owner and ‘mandingo trader’. Shultz and Django must convince Candie and his devoted servant Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) to sell Broomhilda without arousing suspicion.

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