Erlian-Zamin-udd Day 4


We got to sleep quite soon after hitting the road again and I woke to see the sunrise over the Gobi Desert. It was a beautiful, once in a lifetime sight and I realised that if I had a better seat I may not have had the best view to see the sunrise. I stared for some time, watching the sky turn from a dark, somewhat drowsy blue to a cool pink, then on to an electric orange. I got a couple more hours sleep then woke for the last hour of our trip. Somewhere close to the boarder there started popping up myriad dinosaur statues. Scores of metal brontosauruses dotted across the landscape. I guess things get boring in the desert.

We finally entered the border city of Erlian at around 7am. A huge, forgotten city, many times bigger than what I had expected. It was an altogether strange area that looked like it could have been something of a nice place to live, but then just stopped caring about itself and sunk into oblivion.

We were once again told to watch our pockets in this town as the people around here were ‘inner Mongolian’ and not to be trusted.

Getting across the border isn’t as easy as it sounds, or as it should be in this part of the world. For one you can’t just walk across, you need to be driven.  But there is only one or two official buses every day so the general way is to get a local to take you in a truck. My wife-who likes to steer on the safe side of the road-didn’t like the sound of this but there were other things to consider. We had read that crossing the border could take hours and we wanted to get the train to Ulaanbaatar that day. We certainly didn’t want to get stuck in this town for any longer than what was completely necessary.

Continue reading


Beijing-Erlian Day 3

April 8th Beijing-Erlian

Day 3

Up at 6am. These early starts will start to get to me before too long. I am a notoriously late sleeper. My mother surely considered homicide in my youth trying to get me up for school.

The reason for the early rise is that we aren’t completely sure about getting a bus ticket from Beijing to a town called Erlian, on the Chinese/Mongolian boarder. Online sources have said various things. Some have said they have had to wait in Beijing for days for a ticket, other have strolled up to the tickets desk with minutes to spare and got one. We’ve decided to get there as early as possible to try and score tickets. Peace of mind and all that.

From our dungeon it is only a 15 minute walk to The Forbidden Kingdom, where our bus stops. We are around 300 poxy metres from the stop when we see the bus coming from behind us. We leg it and just get to it in time. For anyone reading who would like some tips, the bus is number 2 and many people will tell you to get off at Muxiwun station but this is not correct. You actually have to go one more stop Hua Hutong. Here is where the long distance bus station is. When you stop, you walk 50-100 metres in the direction the bus will go and the station is on your right. A big, glass covered building. We arrived at 8 and asked the lady at the ticket box:

“Erlian. Today. Okay?”

(Lots of Chinese)


(more Chinese)


I won’t put you through the whole back and forth but this went on for a while.  At the end of it she figured out where we wanted to go. To her credit I think our pronunciation of the town was less than stellar. Once she got the gist she directed us to the information desk.

Continue reading

Beijing and Badaling (the Great Wall) Day 2

I woke before YJ, but not before our guest. I sat for a minute before checking my clock, hoping it was before our symphony of alarms would be set off.


“You have many alarms.”

“Yes. Sorry about that.”

“No, problem. I think you need some more.”

At least she took it well.

As we overslept we have no time for breakfast. We packed essentials and hoofed it to the train station, having to pass through Beijing’s blisteringly inept security policy and catch the train. Subway trains in Beijing are incredibly frequent. The 10 or so trains so got in Beijing were either waiting for me at the platform or were there within a minute or two. The stations are clean but retain a nice sense of old fashioned mustiness and gloom. About on a par with the London Tube.

We arrive at the station with 5 minutes to spare, hurrah! After the high fives and back pats with find out that the train is full. Sunken, we line up for the next train, hoping it won’t be 4 hours later. With some luck it is only an hour away at 9:05. We get the tickets, pass through another security check and wait around with half of Beijing. Since we have 50 minutes to spare I decide to grab a coffee from KFC (capitalist pig dog!) and by the time I get back there is a somewhat chaotic queue forming.

“What’s going on? We have 40 minutes before the train goes. Why are we lining up?” I testily ask the other.

“You think I chose this? It’s group mentality. One lined up and the rest followed.”

After pointlessly lining up for 20 minutes they opened the doors to the platform. Perhaps I haven’t explained yet that Beijing is big. On top of being big, it’s long. The buildings are big and long and so are the trains. Not only was our train big and long, but they decided to park it a big, long way away from where the tracks come to an end, rather conveniently by the door. A Good 300 metres from it.

Continue reading

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.”

Continue reading

Review – Castaway on the Moon


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’.

Continue reading

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


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


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.

Continue reading